Friday, June 03, 2016

Learning about Learning - KM in a Gates Foundation WASH portfolio

'O this learning, what a thing it is! '
(William Shakespeare, the Taming of the Shrew) 

It all seems so obvious

Pippa Scott blogged about a conversation with IRC’s Erick Baetings who was convinced he had learnt a lot during the week-long 2015 convening of the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio of grants. But when, with a colleague, he tried to write down what they had learnt – it all seemed rather obvious: ‘we need to think about smarter subsidies‘; ‘we need to work outside our silos.’ Erick said that it took them some time to really work through some of the statements to filter out the real-take home messages (which form an excellent blog here).

Nancy White has played a ‘critical friend’ role with us on the BDS Knowledge Management (KM) project. Nancy and I have worked in KM for more years than we care to (or can) remember. So when we spent some time reflecting what we have learned about learning during the 18 months, a lot of what came up seemed so obvious. But then, we too rarely write down what we know we know, which often means that learning isn’t passed on. That insight came from a shocking moment at the Hanoi convening when it became clear that the same organization had repeated the same errors in different countries over several years, a story told in a previous blog.

The challenges that KM is trying to address don’t change, which is one of the reasons why suggested solutions often sound so obvious: they have probably been tried before, with varying degrees of success. So in this blog we are reflecting on what we have learnt from BDS KM around three themes, identifying what stands out as things that might help improve KM in all our work.

Listening not hearing, observing not seeing

What shakes us out of our comfort zones, makes us challenge our assumptions, makes us recognize that what is in front of us isn’t explained by our current intellectual frameworks? In other words, when and how do we learn?

There are endless quotes on the importance of failure to learning – because failure publicly demonstrates that our assumptions and plans were wrong or inaccurate, and the bigger the failure the harder it is to learn and adjust. Disasters and emergencies have similar, distressing impact on our learning. Merizow suggests transformational learning only happens because of such ‘disorienting dilemmas’.

We can’t wait for failures or disasters to trigger our learning yet often busyness means we miss the obvious and important. The story of how Menstrual Hygiene Management was taken up as an issue by WaterAid GB provides a stark illustration. MHM has emerged as a key concern on WASH agendas in the last 10 years, as the scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems attendant on inadequate menstrual hygiene became clear. Mahon and Fernandes in their seminal 2010 paper, “Menstrual hygiene in South Asia” recount how it started:
“In January 2007, during a project visit to a village in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh State, an adolescent girl told WaterAid staff that her mother did not allow her to use the household’s toilet during menstruation, because she is impure. During another visit to a village in Sheopur district, a woman casually mentioned in discussion that during menstruation she has used the same set of cloths for the last four years. These two small incidents brought to light another dimension of hygiene, and WaterAid realised that this is an area which has to be addressed”
Enormous kudos to WaterAid for picking up the issue and building momentum in the sector. But what is striking to me as a newcomer to the WASH sector, a man with a daughter, is that such a serious issue emerged so recently. Had the stories told by the two women to WaterAid project officers never been told before, or was it simply that the implications and impact of similar stories hadn’t been noticed? What must we do to ensure we hear and see what is in front of us? And the challenge is greater within projects and organizations, which quickly develop a way of seeing and doing that tends to be reinforced by internal processes driven by the need to meet deadlines, targets or budgets.

Of course sanitation as a sector has the powerful model of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) illustrating how people can be brought to a different way of seeing. And although far less dramatic, consultants, reviewers and evaluators can similarly hold up a mirror to an organisation or project. A similar engagement with outsiders comes from exchange and field visits too, as we discussed in an earlier blog. Both the visitors and the ‘subjects’ challenge each other, stimulate reflection and discussion. Visits to new places and contexts also caters for the random, chaotic, free flowing, emergent nature of many learning processes. Visits trigger experiences and memories that can take participants conceptually to a different point, and are especially powerful if groups or teams are involved.

What have we learnt about learning inside organisations?

But what about internal processes? Somehow teams and projects have to bring the outsider, the ‘other’ into their conversations and reviews, whether literally or through how they approach learning. Someone has to take on the outsider role, be a ‘critical friend’, challenge norms, assumptions and, ‘the way we do things around here’.

It’s obvious that leaders play a crucial role. For example, in the MHM case, the two WaterAid field workers were listened to by their manager, who agreed to take the issue up and invest. In the same way, other managers championed and invested in MHM research and programing within the organization. In the same way, managers and leaders have can profile and model learning, as Jan Willem Rosenboom has done in BDS KM and as did the Directors of the WSH team in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in setting up a two day discussion in Seattle to consider how the BDS KM experiment could inform their plans (the outcome of which we’ll be describing in the next, and final, blog in this series).

Part of that modeling is being open about not knowing, admitting ignorance. By asking genuine questions and sharing their own mistakes and failures leaders can help other people unfreeze, as this great example from a USAID project illustrates.

Nancy described this as “othering.” She suggested that an element of othering is the experience and power closeness or distance between the person sharing a learning and the listener. The closer people are in experience and/or power, the easier it is to share those daily, little things that often matter. The risk is low. Trust is probably high. Reputation is not an issue. Sharing with someone with more power or experience (like a boss, expert or funder), while requiring more courage (or trust), may shine a broader light on an issue that the practitioner may have thought was unremarkable, but the expert discerned its larger importance. So this idea that we need to share knowledge with different kinds of others emerged in our observations. It can also affect mentoring, another knowledge sharing vector.

We also observed it is essential to be explicit and intentional about reflective, learning processes. There are myriad formal processes, for example, evaluations and donor reviews. But in many cases a simpler, basic approach is required in standard meetings, mirroring what happens when disorienting dilemmas or emergencies cause us to stop; to think, “what did I actually learn”; “what’s new”; “what do I know more about now” or “how can I apply this new knowledge”? We have to watch for and catch ourselves and each other in our learning, and be mindful of the larger learning journey of which such smaller exchanges and events are a part. It’s that process we included in the learning exchange program, through our skype calls and email- learning-journals.

But to make that happen, space needs to be set aside. Anywhere we have worked people have complained about not having enough time to stop, think and record their learning.

Of course people do make time informally: we have almost as many stories of the informal ways that people make time to talk, and hence to share and learn – whether it’s the Friday afternoon kick-back, with beer or strong, sweet tea; the long, dusty drive back in the land-cruiser; or the small hours overnight on planes; or the bars or clubs in most CGIAR centers that serve the same crucial social and knowledge exchange function as, for example, the livestock fairs in Zimbabwe that Charles Dhewa and his team are recording. But to take that learning from individual and small group up to the level of teams, projects and organizations requires planning and commitment of resources to regular, formal Learning Reviews, which focus on observation and reflection, adaptation and change.

However, as a respondent noted during a recent organizational KM review, being asked to identify what has been learned at the end of a period tends to generate disconnected, random items, that hover between the operationally detailed and the strategic. Some organizations or program units are addressing this by requiring strategic units to develop learning plans or agendas. Catholic Relief Services, for example, as part of their rich learning program, recently instituted procedures requiring country programs to identify annual learning agendas. The aim is to develop a light-touch frame for the year, areas where the teams expect to know more about, questions that are being explored. 

Learning how to learn, learning how to connect.

Pippa Scott highlighted this issue in her blogs for the KM project post the 2015 BDS convening, asking:
  • “Do people know how to learn in their daily work? 
  • Is it part of their commonly used skills set? 
  • Is there a need to build capacity around learning and sharing within the community? 
  • And do projects and teams take account of people’s learning preferences and styles? 
Learning how to learn can mean on a very practical level, ensuring and supporting community members to know how to use webinar/blog or other online technology. On a more conceptual level, learning how to learn can be to ensure community members know how to slow down and take the time to observe, reflect and learn, as in the 'focused conversation' examples from the 2015 BDS convening. This can also be incorporated into learning events, such as reviews and workshops, where organizers schedule a time at the start of the session to set some ground rules and even learn or practice communication skills, before jumping into the content. For example, during the 2015 convening one group realized that participants needed to tell stories rather than simply throw out all their information at each other. It came to light that one of the participants (Joep Verhagen, WSP) had followed storytelling training. The facilitation team liked this and tweaked a session the next day to include the skill of telling stories rather than simply talking at to each other.

Once we had introduced storytelling as a communication technique, and throughout the rest of the workshop, Pippa Scott noticed that participants would prompt each other into better communication, by asking ‘what is the punchline (of your story)?‘ ‘What do I need to learn from this?’ It was fascinating and especially useful in teasing the golden nuggets of learning from the sheer volume of information. It is often also a more pleasurable experience and people may listen better. "

What works for you? What’s your best example of a project, team or organization that took learning seriously, tracked it, and ensured it fed through into program adaptation and development?