What determines whether/how an organization can learn? Interesting discussion at DFID.

February 9, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I was invited along to DFID last week for a discussion on how organizations learn. There was an impressive turnout

Simple, right?

Simple, right?

of senior civil serpents – the issue has clearly got their attention. Which is great because I came away with the impression that they (and Oxfam for that matter) have a long way to go to really become a ‘learning organization’.

So please make allowances in what follows for all the warm, cuddly areas of mutual agreement – I’m going to focus on the areas of disagreement, which are inevitably the most thought-provoking.

To mean anything, learning requires a change both in ideas and behaviours. So what were the theories of change that underpinned the approaches to learning in the room? I found it hard to pin down exactly – they seemed mostly tacit – but a lot of what I heard reminded me of the discussion at Twaweza a couple of years ago. For many present, the tacit theory of change seems to be ‘knowledge → learning → changed behaviours → changed outcomes’. Yeah right.

What we realized at Twaweza was that ‘it’s all in the arrows’. You need to unpack the assumptions and think about what needs to be in place for that theory of change to have any chance of resembling what happens in practice.

And the neat linear ‘we all want to learn from the evidence’ assumptions certainly didn’t fit with my own experience of working at DFID (e.g. phoning up ODI to say ‘we need evidence of the harmful effects of EU cotton subsidies for the meeting in 3 weeks time’ – classic policy-based evidence making). Or the senior Treasury official who stomped down Whitehall to inform us that we should never question the ‘eternal truths’ about trade, namely that ‘trade liberalization leads to more trade, and more trade leads to less poverty’. No amount of knowledge, evidence etc was going to change his mind on that one. Maybe that has all changed in the decade since I left, but I would need to be convinced (preferably by some evidence!)

For my contribution, I played around with a 2×2 – how big is the new idea/piece of learning v how well aligned (or not) is it with current thinking and practice. Some 2x2s prove very useful, others get shot down in flames by FP2P readers. Let’s see which way this one goes. (By the way, does anyone have an easy way of putting together 2x2s? Doing them in Word is a total pain).

learning organization 2x2
How does learning take place in the four quadrants in an institution like DFID (Oxfam isn’t much different, I suspect)?

Small idea, aligned with organization: this is the only quadrant that fits the implicit theory of change, provided there are mechanisms in place to disseminate the new ideas, an enabling environment (incentives, leadership) to allow people to learn and put them into practice, and people who are actually curious about the world and want to learn new stuff. And even those are pretty big ifs.

Small idea, contrary to organization: uphill work. People will mutter ‘that seems counterintuitive’, ‘it goes against my priors’ or a variety of other euphemisms for putting their fingers in their ears and singing la la la. Individuals will either give up, or seek out fellow believers and form small guerrilla networks of dissidents. Whether that network grows depends on the individuals involved, but also on a permissive environment from bosses. The good news is that as part of its increased commitment to ‘knowledge for development’, DFID seems committed to

Yoda's in the bottom right

Yoda’s in the bottom right

encouraging these kinds of ‘communities of practice’.

Big idea, aligned with organization: You’d think this would be straightforward, but it isn’t. For a start, people in different disciplines and professions will have contrasting views about how important this ‘big idea’ really is. Should it hoover up lots of management attention and resources, taking them away from their own areas, or is it some fringe hobbyhorse that should not get too much airtime? You get the picture.

Big idea, contrary to organization: Step forward Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts. There will be huge resistance to the big idea from those whose disciplines, careers or views of the world it threatens. There will need to be a high degree of ‘unlearning’ – battering the organization with evidence, narratives and credible voices to show that the current paradigm needs revision. Large failures and critical junctures (eg financial crises) can help dislodge fixed ideas. Then a massive exercise in experimentation, accumulating evidence and followers, probably followed by a final battle with the existing paradigm.

But maybe not in the way he means it

But maybe not in the way he means it

And as so often, the elephant in the room was power. Power (visible, hidden, invisible) determines what evidence is seen, listened to, gets traction or is dismissed. To unpack those arrows, you also need to understand the nature of power in a large institution like DFID (or Oxfam, for that matter).

It will be fascinating to see how this discussion plays out, and the stakes are high. Any organization that is serious about ‘doing development differently’, ‘adaptive management’ etc has to get those arrows in place.

I’d be interested in hearing from others at the meeting – what did I miss(represent)?