How to create a learning culture
People generally understand and accept the rationale that looking at results and learning is the way to improve. But making this work in practice is a challenge, particularly on the front line where ‘evaluation’ has a reputation for taking up people’s time while offering little in return.
Here are twelve ways you can overcome this problem:
1. Develop a ‘knowledge and learning plan’
Have a clear plan that brings together and summarises your learning intentions and the data collection that will be used to support that learning. Your plan should cover:
- What are your knowledge and learning priorities?
- What methodologies will be used?
- Who is responsible and accountable for collecting and analysing the data?
- What are the key timings and milestones for when things will happen?
- How will learnings be communicated and shared with everyone?
- Who will be responsible for implementing improvements?
- When and how often will the plan be reviewed and updated?
A useful tool to help organisations develop their knowledge and learning plan is Inspiring Impact’s Measuring Up tool. This is a free, step-by-step self-assessment tool that allows you to review and improve your organisation’s impact practice (the way you plan, evidence, communicate and learn from the difference that your work makes).
Start by sharing your commitment to knowledge and learning and the approaches you plan to take. Everyone working on the project/activity should be familiar with your knowledge and learning plan. You may decide to go further and communicate this to beneficiaries and other stakeholders as well.
Communication will be more tangible if you can talk about your specific learning questions. This shouldn’t be too difficult. By now you should have already agreed what information your project needs, it is just a matter of ensuring everyone understands these goals and cares about trying to answer them.
You may also need to address misapprehensions about knowledge and learning. For example, by demonstrating that it is being used to support staff to improve and maximise impact for beneficiaries, rather than as a way of judging performance.
3. Define roles and responsibilities
Everyone should be aware of their role in knowledge creation and learning:
- Senior staff set the tone and promote knowledge and learning as an essential part of the project delivery and organisational practice, as important as finance and risk. They will set up knowledge and learning systems, allocate resources and recruit the right people. They will also communicate—both internally and externally—what the project learns from knowledge and learning and how they are acting on it.
- Managers play a crucial role in building a knowledge and learning culture. They are the interface between more senior staff and the front line. They should try to ‘sell’ knowledge and learning to both groups and connect people who could learn from one another. They also need to take time to understand the results and think about what can be done to improve.
- Front line staff and volunteers deliver activities and are often responsible for collecting data. They are in the best position to offer useful feedback and insights around what is happening.
- Service users should feel free to share their views and have opportunities for greater involvement if they choose. They should also understand that the organisation is looking to learn and improve.
You will need to give people time to engage and participate in evaluation and learning activities. Knowledge and learning will inevitably take a backseat to delivery, so this needs to be carefully considered and tackled head-on.
Someone will need to have overall responsibility for knowledge and learning. New organisations tend to give this responsibility to one person, who often has other responsibilities. This is not surprising given how stretched resources can be, but we also encounter larger organisations that have not invested enough resources into it, nor have the right skills, and whose knowledge and learning is consequently behind where it should be.
One way to promote knowledge and learning is to get people to act as champions. This can help bridge gaps between different people in the hierarchy or across different sites. Champions can promote knowledge and learning generally and actively engage others in the implementation of improvements, or focus on learning in relation to a particular area of work or set of activities.
6. Involve people
Try to get staff, volunteers and beneficiaries involved in the design of knowledge and learning processes like your theory of change, questionnaires and data systems. This will undoubtedly improve the quality of this work, and it will help to raise awareness and commitment to knowledge and learning more generally.
Remove any jargon from your communications and use the most accessible language possible. Spend time shadowing or talking to staff to understand the challenges they face in collecting, reviewing and sharing data.
Think about what further incentives you can offer to promote knowledge and learning. Consider writing it into job descriptions and including contributions to knowledge and learning in staff performance appraisals. Volunteers might be motivated by prizes and other forms of recognition.
The most important incentive is to demonstrate how knowledge and learning is being used to improve the organisation’s work and increase impact. Above all, we suggest making the results from knowledge and learning a regular focus of internal communications. People should always get the results from the data they have been involved in collecting.
8. Make data collection and use as easy as possible
To secure support from the front line, it helps to integrate data collection into day to day work, rather than as an add-on. This is easier said than done. It means ensuring processes are as light-touch as possible, with immediate information and feedback provided for staff to use to support their work.
The same applies to collecting ‘informal feedback’ from beneficiaries and stakeholders. For example, verbally or through social media. This will disappear into thin air unless there is a process for capturing and storing it. A ‘comments’ book is the traditional way to do this, while establishing a social media hashtag might work if your staff/volunteers prefer to work this way.
9. Systems/processes for learning
So much learning stays in people’s heads. You need to find ways to encourage people to share their thoughts. A common approach is to cover learning in team meetings or occasional conferences, better still if there are processes for sharing and disseminating between teams. You could introduce more structure to this. For example, always having learning meetings at the start and end of projects, or at regular intervals.
Modern technology also gives us new possibilities for sharing learning. You can set up intranets and forums, and there are online tools like Slack, Medium and others for sharing information between teams. Larger projects might want to consider more sophisticated Knowledge Management Systems (KMS).
10. Learn from mistakes/failure
Promote a mindset that focuses on improvement. Any disappointing results should be acknowledged and examined, and staff should be encouraged to do this. Some organisations even throw failure parties where people can get together and share what hasn’t worked.
11. Acknowledge your capabilities
Assess your internal evaluation/research skills and your access to external support. Your chosen approach must match your staff’s ability to conduct research and make sense of the data. Introducing methods which don’t meet employees’ skills risks undermining the credibility of the results and weakening staff engagement in evaluation.
You may need to seek external advice or commission externally. Remember that not being an expert or having limited financial resources does not necessarily mean good quality evidence is out of reach.
12. Give it time
Finally, you need to allow time for all this to take shape. Although it is always worth looking for ‘quick wins’ so that people see the value of knowledge and learning, it may be a few years before the right culture and supporting systems are in place.