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Kaiser Permanente’s Pam Schwartz on Becoming a Learning Organization

Like others in the social sector, I spend a lot of time thinking about hard questions: To what degree are we improving the lives of people in the communities we serve? How can we work more effectively? How can we ensure that our experiences last week, last year, and over the last decade help inform our work so we can create greater impact going forward? How can our strategy be more relevant and community-driven?

For me and my colleagues in Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit, these questions have never felt more urgent than they do today. Our work cuts across many complex issues that relate to the root causes of health. We work with vulnerable communities in many ways, including to ensure they have the ability to support healthy eating and active living and have access to health care and affordable housing. The context we operate in is shifting as communities’ needs and policies change. As this complex environment evolves, our staff, leaders, Board, and regulators are seeking ways to ensure that we are contributing to the improved health of our communities.  

We are focused on how more intentional measurement and evaluation can strengthen our strategy so that we can achieve the outcomes we care about. Putting renewed emphasis on how we learn together, we began by building a shared understanding of our strategies and the outcomes we are trying to achieve. We did this by creating and refreshing theories of change for our work. This allowed us to update our outcomes and the indicators, which will let us know if we are achieving those outcomes.

We also worked to identify our assumptions and provide space to determine what questions we should ask and answer to enhance our ability to measure our impact along the way. After identifying these strategic learning questions, we decided that we needed to be more intentional about the ways we carve out time to bring information to conversations and decision-making processes, and we have made significant efforts to ensure we spend time answering those questions. 

We realize that becoming an organization where we learn from our work and apply our learnings is more than a plan or a process. This work requires a commitment to cultural change. It means getting clearer with ourselves, our leaders, our grantees, and our partners about what we are striving to accomplish, changing the questions we ask, and how we ask them. It means nurturing the connection between our measurement and evaluation approaches, and how it informs our learning about our work. As a result, we are gaining a greater understanding of how to build a culture where we support innovative risk-taking, and that we need to slow down and make time for reflection and learning. 

Continuing on our journey to be a true learning organization will likely influence our organization in many positive ways. One way we are already seeing this shift is in our approach to the ambiguity we face on the changing political landscape, including uncertainties around the Affordable Care Act. As we anticipate many unknowns this year, our leadership team is coming together to develop a shared understanding of the potential changes and implications for our communities. We are now bringing a learning frame to plan for our evolving context so that we can be more nimble and adaptive.  

Our aim is to allow time to be thoughtful and reflective, informed by data and our rich experiences so that we can proactively design the next iteration of our work. More intentional learning is helping us do that. We are using structured learning activities (see Facilitating Intentional Group Learning) to allow us to learn together. Our aspiration is that by taking this step toward becoming more of a learning organization we will see things differently, plan differently, respond differently, and be more confident in the actions we take. Ultimately this will benefit our staff, our members, and the communities that we serve.

Note: Pam Schwartz will be participating in the upcoming webinar “Learning How to Learn: Embedding Intentional Group Learning into Your Foundation” on February 23rd. Learn more and register>

FSG

Pamela Schwartz

Senior Director for Community Health Impact and Learning Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit