Saturday, April 24, 2010

Do collective lessons learned exist?

I'm currently working in a team where we consult eachother and divide work. The team works quite well in my opinion. What we don't do is make short minutes or action notes and so it happens that we rediscuss what was already decided earlier on (everyone forgot). Or someone doesn't do what was agreed (forgot). It's interesting: isn't ending a meeting with action points and write them down and follow them up a lesson we all know? So why don't we do it in this case?

I've also worked in Kenya together with CARE-International on a credit program for female enterpreneurs in a rice area. This was in 1989 or 1990, south of Kisumu. An important principle was that NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are not good in managing credit programs because not thinking in business models and NGO workers are seen by farmers as 'friends' and 'supporters'. A different role than credit officer. So the program was sub-contracted to a credit institute. In 2007 (17 years later!) I visited an NGO in Ghana. They had learnt a lesson from their credit program: that they are not good in recollecting the loans because they are seen by the farmers as an NGO. So they thought of sub-contracting to a credit institute. But the damage was already done.

These kind of observations (I could make a much longer list!) get me thinking about collective learning processes and how difficult they are. The first example shows that there is more to the practice of working together than 'knowing' how it should be done. Probably the group is forming and trying to find a way of working together effectively with as little energy input as necessary?

The second example I think shows how difficult it is to learn collectively within a sector. And maybe that reading about something is not enough- you have to make your own mistakes first. It's like everybody is entitled to his/her own learning process. And if you've read this blog for longer you know I believe in the power of communities and networks to support collective learning. But what is then a collective lesson learned?

I really like the work of Nancy Dixon around these issues. She wrote a blogpost about the value of lessons learned not too long ago. She defines lessons learned at the individual level: "something I learned through an experience I’ve had that will cause me to act differently in the future" She explains the power of reflection in, for instance, after action review processes to stimulate learning and ends with the phrase: "The greatest value of lessons learned is for those who took the action". So should we simply lower our ambitions and talk about collective lessons learned? How easily we say, let's collect the lessons learned with the idea that it will contribute to collective learning. But for a collective learning process much more may be needed like sustained exchange of practices over a longer period of time.


Ewen Le Borgne said...

Hi Hoitske!

Good post that touches upon an essential aspect: how does change happen - whether at in individual or collective level. I think the latter relates to your previous post about the social capital and trust that plays a key role in creating a safe failing space where people can open their vulnerable side to discuss issues openly and encourage each other to really try new things out or to inspire others to change.

I have always been more effective at delivering and trying new things out in teams where we had that trust and we could take advantage of the social capital that was there among us.

And at that I would also say that we tend to focus a lot on what we have to do and not enough on why and how to do them. Thank you anyway and keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Meeting minutes - this problem seems to be universal. And I credit it to the fact that since we were given a PC/notebook/desk-top, we 'removed' secretary (of course the big bosses still have their private assistant to take and type meeting notes), nobody wants to be bother to take meeting notes, type and send out to the group. I think it has a lot to do with status symbol -- who wants to look and feel like a secretary??

Lesson learned and NOT followed up with action is the same as LESSON NOT-learned. What is the point of talking about it and not include 'lesson learned' as good practice?


Mark Turpin said...

Hi Joitske, nice posting! I have been thinking about learning from the ash cloud. Volcanic ash disrupting flights is an easy thing to anticipate and yet we do not learn from it until it happens. Anticipation and experience I guess being different in the learning possibilities that arise...

Joitske said...

@cindy- good point about nobody taking the secretary role... it's not an exciting role. (I will take it next time!). I think the term lessons learnt suggests something too easy.

@mark I wonder how you'd see anticipating the vulcanic eruptions? You could have some emergency plan but there's a lot of improvising I guess. It does remind me of the exploding whale video. This could have been anticipated but time between exploding whale events may be too long?

Jennie Swann said...

There might be a difference of assumptions too. Working with people of a different culture who see the agreement process as moving slowly towards consensus I've seen clashes with others with Western assumptions about majority voting on an issue. So the latter think the group has agreed on something and are surprised and annoyed to find it coming up again meeting after meeting because consensus has not been reached.

Joitske said...

@dialogue very good point! It happens also when people agreed, but not wholeheartedly.. in that case taking notes and actions will not help at all

Anonymous said...

I agreed different cultures have different understanding about 'agreements' or 'contract'. This problem is not only on our level, we see the same in international, political arena such as China and their ideas of being a member of the WTO, for example - China would break the WTO agreements again and again ...
I am also from a different culture, meaning non-western, non-American, therefore I do not agree that because there are different cultures, we have to deal with things differently. Instead the effort should be focusing on how to make sure everyone understand what they agreed on. THAT is the reason why the meeting minutes is so important - to keep everyone honest in BLACK and WHITE. And persistance is the key.