Thursday, March 01, 2007

We're too much in a 'to do' mode

I know Maaike Smit and I'm proud that she has written a very revealing paper with a very explicit title about learning in the development sector: We're too much in a 'to do' mode (the title reads almost like a conclusion and recommendations at the same time :).

She did action research amongst development NGOs in the Netherlands, and investigates how they 'think and talk about learning, which influences the way they shape their organisational learning. Organisational learning remains a vague goal without 'hands and feet'. Most organisations categorise themselves as having an activist learning style. Joint reflection on experiences in not common practice. Reflection is mostly informal and project-related.'

She takes the stand that self-knowledge — understanding how you learn — is an essential first step in improving your own learning processes. Supporting people and organisations to reflect on their own learning processes and capacity is central to assisting them to learn. I think that's a brave and clear stand.

On page 18 there is two things that struck me, as I have been thinking about them for long. The first one is that new staff entering the organisation was mentioned most often as a factor promoting learning as it brings in new expertise and a fresh, critical view. I fully agree with this, but also see that potential is rarely leveraged. So probably finding out about how an organisation deals with the input of newcomers, will tell something about their learning abilities.

The second is that monitoring and evaluation were hardly mentioned as enabling factors for learning. Nancy Dixon was the person who talked about separating learning from accountability during her master class in the Netherlands, which seemed very refreshing after all the struggle to 'force' people to learn from monitoring efforts. As monitoring and evaluation is part of the accountability system, it is hard to get fully honest data on the table. When data do not match people's gut feeling, they do not really learn from it.

Having this information about learning styles of the development sectors (though the 3 cases already show how hard it is to generalise!); what consequences does this have for communities of practice? Does it mean that in the start up phase, you have to make sure you respond to the activist preference? And how and when do you introduce more reflective elements? Or will a community of practice automatically mould itself according to the preferential styles of the sector and are they not the best vehicle to deal with learning disabilities? (some of these questions I have tried to inject into a mini-project group of the english foundations workshop, so I'm waiting for them to give the answers...).


Michael Randel said...

i was also struck by the absence of m&e in influencing learning in organisations - and yet so often responsibility for m&e is placed in units with 'learning' in their title!

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

He, Michael, nice to see you showing up at my blog! Remember it all start with our course. I'm thinking development organisations may need a shift in thinking about M&E. I noticed I lost my interest in the topic because of this unnatural force to learn from a bunch of weird data...