“Life is a learning experience, only if you learn.” ~Yogi Berra
I love this quote. Somehow, Yogi Berra’s words always seem to have a
precious nugget of truth and insight embedded in them. What I take away
from this quote is that of course, we all learn things every day –
that’s part of being human. However, what we learn, how much we learn,
and when we learn, matters. And, if we are not intentional about our
learning, then we just might not learn what we need, when we need it, or
how to use what we’ve learned.
Over the last few years, the topic of “learning” has become woven into
the natural discourse in philanthropic organizations. One can hardly
have a conversation with foundation staff without someone uttering the
word “learning.” While this warms my heart, as someone who has studied,
taught, written about, and tried to live a life dedicated to learning, I
am concerned. I am concerned because while I hear a lot of talk about
the value of learning, I do not see much evidence that organizations
truly understand what it means to engage in and support intentional,
planned, and mindful learning.
What is learning?
Learning is a BIG word – undefined in context, it can mean a million
things. When I think about learning in an organization, 3 dimensions
come to mind:
- Individual, group, organizational: refers to who learns. One of my favorite definitions of learning is, “acquisition of skill or know-how, and the acquisition of know-why.”
- Informal/Formal: this reflects the how of learning – informal
learning is typically unstructured and experiential. Studies have shown
that 70-80% of what people know about their jobs, they have learned
informally from the people with whom they work. Formal learning is where
the content has been chosen by others and presented to the learner,
such as in a training program.
- Intentional/Unintentional: reflects whether the learning
experience is thought-through and planned (intentional), or if learning
happens through daily experience and/or is serendipitous
Consideration of these 3 dimensions will help guide an organization’s
thinking and practice about how it can be deliberate and thoughtful
about the ways in which it supports continuous learning.
What does it take to learn within an organization?
I believe learning requires consistent engagement in 5 key learning processes:
- Engaging in Reflection - creating space, slowing down,
paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, creating
alternative interpretations, creating new theories of action
- Engaging to Dialogue
- participants working together toward common understanding, finding
common ground, re-examining all positions, admitting that others’
thinking can improve on one’s own, searching for strengths and value in
others’ positions, listening to understand
- Asking Questions – seeking clarification, probing
assumptions, reasons and evidence, illuminating viewpoints and
perspectives, probing implications and consequences, questioning the
questions (Socratic questions)
- Identifying and Challenging Values, Assumptions and Beliefs – asking questions (testing assumptions), surfacing mental models, seeking evidence, understanding inferences
- Seeking Feedback –asking for and providing feedback on experiences, assumptions, perceptions, and actions
These learning processes are the key ingredients to creating a healthy and productive learning culture.
What is the relationship between evaluation and learning?
I’ve always believed that evaluation is a catalyst for learning – that
the reason to do evaluations is to learn something that will influence
our own and others’ thinking and practice. Evaluations at their best
affirm and challenge what we think we know, provide evidence on the
influence, effects, and impact of our work, and give us the confidence
to make decisions and to take action. Supporting this view, Grantmakers
for Effective Organizations has written,
“Evaluation is a core learning practice. It provides the
content of learning as grantmakers and their grantees explore the
results of their work and how to improve their performance…Evaluation,
of course, is not the only way in which organizations learn. But
grantmakers must think evaluatively about their work and have access to
the information, feedback and data that only evaluation can deliver.” Evaluation in Philanthropy: Perspectives from The Field, GEO, 2009, p. 6
How can we support ongoing learning?
In the end, an authentic commitment to learning means recognizing the
value of learning at the individual, group and organizational levels. It
means having learning leaders who champion and model learning; it means
developing, nurturing, and sustaining a culture that supports the five
learning processes, in addition to taking risks, and trusting one
another; it means rewarding and recognizing staff for engaging in
learning and evaluation processes. And, it means making learning a
priority through the expectation and provision of time and space to
allow it to happen.
As always, I remain optimistic that the rhetoric around learning will
increasingly be transformed into good practice, as we come to see that
foundations cannot fully achieve their social impact goals if they do
not continue to change, grow, and evolve along the way.