In Ethiopia, I worked with an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) who had funds for small organizations. Year after year there was feedback from the organizations that approval of their funding took way too long. The employees involved were claiming that it was not their fault and that they were doing everything to approve quickly. As an advisor to this organization I decided to follow a number of cases made a table with the data obtained for each step in the process. It showed exactly how long the application lasted in each step. Every individual step didn't last too long but their were so many steps. With these figures in hand, we had a common truth and fairly quickly we agreed that a number of steps in the procedure should be cut. I was actually flabbergasted that my table worked so well, especially because it was a problem which had a long history of conflicts.
So when Nelly Spanjersberg told me about benchlearning I was very interested and curious. I think it is very innovative to learn from fact and figures, and not merely from reflection and feedback. So I was happy that she arranged an interview with Corline Koolhaas, projectleider benchmarking en benchlearning Rijk, projectleader for the Ministries. Here's the interview I had:
What is benchlearning? “Benchlearning is an innovative way of learning, and therefore difficult to explain. The danger is to explain is with an 'old' vocabulary, which may not fit this new way of learning. For example: an innovation as the mp3 player is hard to explain with the words of the old ways of listening to music, there are so many new possibilities. We are working on benchlearning since 2009 and have yet to be developed a better language. But I will try anyway!
The goal of bench learning is creating a better government without making a judgment about what is right and wrong. In the case of bench learning we want to create a new vision, rather than a strategy in place. Benchlearning helps to discover: are we moving in the right direction? The traditional way of working with statistics and benchmarking worked like looking in a mirror. In benchlearning you do not you look back, but you monitor what is happening around you, with no hypothesis, and without predetermined indicators. Having predetermined indicators restricts your vision. In benchlearning you have a look at information available and arrange in in new ways, but without a set first hypothesis. You go looking for patterns. This leads to a deeper form of learning than through indicators or other means.
Furthermore, the collective process of meaning construction is very important. You will look at the figures together: what does this mean? This means you work to change ideas and culture, yet without talking about 'culture' or 'change'. It is extremely important that you not filter yourself but that people are going to interpret what the numbers mean. Because most people want change but do not want to be changed. They must draw their own lessons"
How does the benchlearning proces look like? "We start by making conversation starter sheets. This is a collection of figures around a particular topic. Then we assess what figures surprise people and why. After that we organize meetings, on these subjects with a central question. It is important to not to do this in a meetings environment, but in an exploratory, different setting. People should be open and confident to share. It is important that they are not judged behind their backs on what they share. These meetings lead to new insights and meaning-making about what happens in practice".
What are situations in which benchlearning fits well? "You have do it where you have a good breeding ground, there should be a clear problem. There must be some cracks. The method lends itself to larger organizations for internal sessions, but you can also apply to benchlearning amongst companies. It does not work when you are working with highly judgmental people who do not want to explore what is going on. If people in the bargaining or negotiating modus they cannot learn. Furthermore, it is important to ensure you have participant of an equal level within the organization who can inspire each other."
What is the function of the data, the figures in benchlearning? "
The figures provide the confrontation with the real world. Sometimes a problem is already recognized as a major problem, but the numbers make it more manageable. Figures work very well to discuss actual practices, even with people who are afraid of figures. With them you present the information just in a different way. By presenting the numbers (which are often already available!) in a different way, you get a very different conversation. Often people talk past each other. In bench learning you create common ground by the use of figures and a central question. "
I am definitely inspired by bench learning and still want to see if I can try part of it in my own practice. For example, it could be interesting to start a session with teachers with data on the use of social media by students and teachers? Seems interesting to see what kind of conversation that brings.