Monday, September 29, 2014

Learning about learning - stories of change

We set ourselves quite a target for the three and a half hour workshop on a Friday afternoon, on the last day of the five-day WEDC 2014 conference, that we described in a previous blog. We proposed to explore the relationship between Knowledge, Action and Change. We chose to do that by focusing on stories of change provided by the participants. 

The underlying concept was that constructing such a narrative requires people to focus on change within and between programmes, teams or organisations. And working backwards to track when and how that change was triggered requires the kind of reflection – both individual and collective - that is a central part of learning processes. I was building in part from an earlier workshop, organised by Michelle Laurie in Manila at the Asian Sanitation Dialogue for the South Asia Urban Knowledge Hub project (introduced in Michelle's blog). The overall aim for the four national projects is to influence change through research and knowledge networking. Working with Michelle we applied some ideas and techniques I first learnt in Oxfam GB a long time ago, and later reinforced in work around advocacy and campaigning, where the first step is to identify change goals – defining a future state that illustrates an improved state of affairs, and then stepping back from that point to now, identifying activities that could lead to the desired future state. 

In Hanoi we were working from another angle, aiming to draw on story telling skills as a way to understand how a particular project or team might improve their work and to identify lessons that might be relevant in other contexts. As I said, a tall order for three and a half hours on a Friday afternoon at the end of a very busy week.

Change, time and learning loops

We framed the activities with two sets of ideas. I began with a story based on my experience in Oxfam, as an IT manager for the International Division, from 1994 - 2002. I was part of an Oxfam-wide group running big, complicated IT projects linked to the regionalisation process that was convulsing the organisation. Individually and collectively the organisation was learning how to run such large, integrated programmes. I wasn't the only one who was making major mistakes: the programme as a whole was over-budget and behind target in most areas. As a result OGB went through a learning process, painful for me since I had to accept my own failure, but the failure was at all levels of the organisation, up to the top.

There was a lot of formal output from that learning in terms of documentation and new ways of working, including a much more rigorous Business Case process required for any new IT-related investment. The new systems and approach worked well and one of the main reasons was that learning had happened across OGB, not just among IT specialists. As illustrated in the diagram it wasn’t just about being better program managers, supported by improvements in process and documentation, but also that all those concerned reflected more deeply, in a classic second loop of learning, about priorities and aims. As a consequence the organisation became better at the larger process of integrating constantly changing IT and IS systems into its core business, better at re-using what was still usable and less ambitious in defining requirements for new systems. And while those lessons were also captured in documentation, it was the shared learning – hard earned in many cases, including mine  – between people across Oxfam GB that anchored the new ways of working. 

The importance of this ‘human glue’ became evident when I returned to Oxfam GB five years later, this time working in the Communication Division on Interactive Media, and later, as part of a group defining a Digital Vision for the organisation. Many of the IT staff were still in place, as were the formal processes and documentation. But many of the 'business' managers in the rest of the organisation were different, with few remaining of those who’d learned through the challenge of rescuing a failing program. Consequently, many saw the processes as an imposition, an exertion of central control from the IT Department, and a few were attempting to subvert the process. Institutional memory had dissipated.

To some extent this is a depressingly universal story, in public, private and not-for profit organisations. Our aim was to illustrate that documentation and procedures are meaningless without a shared understanding of and commitment to the ways of working they seek to embed. And that sustaining that change over time is more challenging than achieving more efficient programmes. Further, by starting with a story of ‘failure’, my own, we hoped to encourage people to share openly. Finally, we also wanted to emphasise the importance of engaging with at least a second loop of learning, focusing more on the question, ‘are we doing the right thing?’ rather than ‘how do we do it right’.

A wedge that sustains progress

Kathryn Harries, the Knowledge and Learning (K&L) Manager of the AusAID Civil Society (CS) WASH fund, has developed a model of K&L processes that she presented to contextualize and ground our activity in real examples of K&L processes. A central process in the model is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, as shown in this excellent illustration from Kathryn’s work, enabling projects and organisations to, “move up the continuous improvement slope towards best practice, and thereby improving WASH outcomes” as is explained in the guide for members of the CS WASH fund.

And Kathryn has captured creatively the importance of capturing and sharing good practice to maintain improvements within and between projects or when staff members change, which she expresses as a “wedge” to capture good practice so it is not lost between projects, or when staff members change. We explained that in their stories of change participants should focus on the wedge, identifying how lessons were learnt and captured in ways that ensured they didn’t disappear. And the connections to my story from Oxfam are obvious.

Kathryn illustrated the full model below with examples of good practice from SNV and East Meets West itself. I think it's an impressive and rich framing of good, sustainable K&L processes in all sectors, not just WASH and will explore it in more detail in the near future. 

However, in the next blog in this series we will describe what emerged in the workshop.