Organisational Learning

The Organisational Learning Expert Group (OLEG) was set up in September 2014 to enable group members to share knowledge, experience and learn more about how organisations learn.

The group seeks to understand how organisations have used learning to address challenges, embed a culture of learning and continue to learn. Currently seven bilateral and multilateral donors expressed interest to be active in the OLEG: Center of Excellence in Finance (CEF), UK Department for International Development (DfID), European Commission, GIZ, LuxDev, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

Context

Organisational learning (OL) is a term introduced in the 1970s by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. It is the process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization. An organization improves over time as it gains experience. From this experience, it is able to create knowledge. This knowledge can be very broad, covering any topic that could bring an organization to the next level. It is created at four different units: individual, group, organizational, and inter-organizational. An organization learns successfully when it is able to retain this gained knowledge and transfer it to, or spread it throughout, the various divisions within an organisation.

Objectives

The OLEG therefore seeks to:

  • Develop a shared understanding of how Learn4dev member organisations learn lessons from ongoing operations and use knowledge to change what they do over time.
  • Understand the effectiveness of the tools and techniques used by those organisations.
  • Use the knowledge and understanding to influence policy, strategy, plans and action.

Work Agenda

The OLEG members agree to work on the following issues recognising that some will take precedence over others. The priority ranking is yet to be determined.

  • Identify a good overview/summary of the theory and principles of OL to act as a guiding framework and educational tool for the work of the group. This could be usefully supported by a publically available video that sets out the theory of OL and other resources, e.g. a blog or website.
  • Identify and pilot a benchmarking questionnaire that can be used to assess the current level of learning culture in a team or organisation. It may be feasible to work with teams to develop action plans based on the results of the questionnaire. This can also be used to assess progress in developing the learning culture through repeat administration.
  • All the organisations associated with OLEG face a challenge in sharing lessons learned from implementation of aid programmes and applying them. Most are good at gathering evidence, undertaking evaluations and recording lessons. Our main challenge is to disseminate and take action to improve impact or avoid mistakes. We should investigate organisational designs that help and hinder learning, and the incentives that block or encourage learning.
  • One of the features of many development cooperation agencies is the presence of significant numbers of technical professionals. Does the organisation of these professional groups influence the effectiveness of knowledge flow and learning? Should professions, professional continuous professional development (CPD) and professional accreditation be encouraged or does it create silos that inhibit the flow of knowledge and experience?
  • Local staff are often the institutional memory of development cooperation organisations. For cultural, political, status and organisational reasons local staff often seem not to be listened to and appear to be reluctant to speak up and share their insights. What can we do to improve our learning with and from local staff?
  • A feature of all development cooperation organisations is staff rotation, usually on 3-4 year cycles. However in some situations such as fragile or conflict environments rotation cycles may be as short as 12-18 months. Increasingly our organisations rely on external contractors. This creates significant challenges in retaining institutional knowledge and managing transitions and handovers. How can we improve handovers and transitions to retain know how? How do we capture and share lessons learned by contractors?
  • There is increasing recognition that formal learning is only a relatively small part of the way people learn. A key vehicle for organisational learning can be communities of practice and social networks. However our experience is that often these channels do not fulfil their potential and require disproportionate effort to sustain them. How can we create more effective communities of practice and use social networks for learning?
  • It is often said that we learn most from failure. Development cooperation organisations often have problems admitting to their failures fearing that to do so will undermine the case for involvement. Career and other incentives do not encourage objectivity in analysing difficult cases; optimism bias, fear of punishment or embarrassment can lead us to ignore signs of failure in programmes and creates a reluctance to close programmes and learn and apply hard lessons. This can lead to unease/anxiety that we are repeating mistakes. How can we create a climate where difficulties and failures can be more openly discussed and shared?
  • Learning is a specific skill in its own right – perhaps a “meta skill” on which other capabilities depends. What are the competencies we need for a learning organisation? Who has been developing these? What programmes are currently available to develop “learning competence”? Can we share them?
  • CEF is about to become an international organisation. It will require an organisational design including structure, incentives, performance management, culture, role definitions and operating practices. How can this organisation design be executed in ways that are favourable to learning. Can the organisational design actually facilitate knowledge flow, capability building and lesson learning? Can OLEG work with CEF to provide support and challenge as it develops its organisational design?
  • Learning from the experience of beneficiaries could be the source of a huge amount of important insight. There are many barriers to getting good beneficiary feedback. It is particularly challenging in conflict and fragile environments. Are there any examples of this working in practice? What approaches have been adopted and what works?

The first OLEG meeting took place in East Kilbride, Scotland on September 29, 2014. The second meeting was held in Stockholm, Sweden on January 29, 2015.