How Fostering a Learning Culture Can Improve Your Strategy

FSG’s Nikhil Bumb, Allison Kaika, Gabriella Cova, and Mikayla Redding joined Capital + SAFI in La Paz, Bolivia for several in-person strategy workshops

As social impact strategy consultants, we’ve learned that the most effective corporate strategies are the ones that are rooted in a strong learning culture. Consider the case of Capital + SAFI, a Bolivian-based, mid-size asset management firm with over $500M in assets under management. The firm cares deeply about creating shared value, building economic value for their investors while addressing societal problems and challenges in Latin America through their investments. While many firms seem content to simply collaborate with a strategy consulting team, Capital + SAFI dug in further with FSG to cultivate a strong learning culture during the engagement. The CEO and the entire leadership team were intentional and transparent about their desire to build processes, approaches, and structures for learning during the strategy development process. Some of the outcomes on strategy development from centering learning included:

  • Deep understanding of each individual’s role in strategy implementation and tailored accountability mechanisms for execution
  • Reduced time between conceptualization and implementation, increasing efficiency of processes
  • Real-time testing of the strategy implications by staff for continuous refinement and feedback

Below, we outline the foundational steps Capital + SAFI employed to pair strategy with learning to realize the most effective outcomes of strategy development.

What is a learning culture?

According to FSG Senior Advisor and former President of the American Evaluation Association Hallie Preskill, key activities that enable a learning culture include: engaging in reflection, engaging in dialogue, asking questions, identifying values, challenging assumptions, and seeking feedback. In addition to these activities, there often needs to be intentional enabling efforts to (1) investing in building staff capacity and learning muscle, (2) create or modify organizational processes and structures to support learning, and (3) organizational leaders with a vision for learning.

Approaches to building and reinforcing a learning culture during the strategy development process

“Knowledge in the world of complex adaptive systems, then, is not about publishing lessons learned from individual successes or failures, but experimenting with a constantly evolving set of hypotheses about how to succeed in a dynamic environment.” (Darling et al., 2016, Emergent Learning)

Experimenting with evolving hypotheses requires an enabling environment—if a company doesn’t tolerate failure, then it will never experiment and grow. An organization must intentionally engage in processes, approaches, and structures to build their capacity for learning. Here’s how Capital + SAFI successfully integrated learning capacities into their strategy development to realize their highest potential as a firm.

Processes: Leading dialogue and reflection on key strategy concepts and ideas

Deepening the leadership team’s engagement and understanding of the concept of shared value itself was key to having productive conversations with staff to challenge and improve strategy ideas across the firm. Capital + SAFI has about 30 staff, 7 committees, 5 divisions, and a board of directors, so integrating a shared understanding of shared value across these groups was imperative. To do so, FSG held monthly “office hours” open to all employees and board members as a forum to bring conceptual ideas to life with case studies and live Q&A opportunities. These sessions were almost unanimously attended across the firm with a strong desire to learn and understand the theoretical background of the new strategy.

Moreover, division leaders were simultaneously sharing articles and materials about shared value with their teams that were discussed in their sessions with FSG. Key questions and ideas about how to implement shared value were introduced across the organization, organically circulating new information and inspiring questions, conversations, and ideas. Capital + SAFI division leaders continued to facilitate engagement with these concepts in their day-to-day work, bringing those discussions back to our strategy development meetings to enhance draft ideas and materials.

Approaches: Creating inclusive spaces for raising diverse perspectives and challenging questions

In order to achieve buy-in and deep understanding of the topics at hand, Capital + SAFI continued to emphasize the importance of involving representatives from all divisions, and at all levels, of the firm in the strategy development process. The core strategy group, which met once a month, involved leaders from every division at Capital + SAFI, including operations, IT, auditors, and legal, which fostered lively discussion of important questions, such as, “how do our information systems support feedback loops with clients to understand progress towards creating shared value?” and “what is our threshold for environmental, social, and financial risk within our investments in order to create shared value?”

Moreover, FSG created a smaller team of “Shared Value Advisors” that met twice a month, convening key stakeholders from across the organization who could bring varying perspectives to stress test the strategy, including investment officers, a board member, directors, and a risk manager. These “Advisors” were tasked with serving as a sensing function within the organization to listen for concerns and questions about a shared value approach and the developing strategy. In the bi-monthly sessions, the “Advisors” and FSG team would discuss these concerns and create a plan to address them, creating an alternative avenue for leadership and ownership of the new strategy, as well as new relationships and forums to adapt and problem-solve outside traditional divisions and committees.

Structures: Actively experimenting with new ideas early and often to raise and integrate feedback

One of the most impressive aspects of Capital + SAFI’s operations is their ability to take a new idea and put it to the test very early on in its development. For example, Capital + SAFI, who was frequently engaged with their investees, would float and test new ideas for their strategy, capitalizing on the opportunity for feedback to refine the ideas. To harness this productive practice, at the mid-point of the strategy process, Capital + SAFI began utilizing the developing strategy to inform key decisions for their new regional fund in Latin America. This regional fund group was able to refine the foundational strategic pillars, raise key questions, and identify resource needs for implementation so the FSG team could address gaps and challenges in the draft strategic framework and implementation recommendations.

Enabling efforts for success

While FSG fostered the already existing processes, approaches, and structures of a learning culture at Capital + SAFI through the strategy development process, none of these learning elements would have been possible without Capital + SAFI’s two other enabling efforts for learning: investments in capacity development and leadership and vision for learning at the executive level. To implement learning, a firm must have leaders to model and encourage learning processes at every level of the organization, in addition to putting aside the resources and time for staff to build their own learning muscles and capacity to engage in learning processes.

Ultimately, with the partnership of Capital + SAFI to center learning throughout strategy development, we were able to create a strategy and accompanying materials that were already being applied and tested throughout the organization, creating a seamless integration of ideas at the end of the engagement. We hope to take these lessons and inspiration from our engagement with Capital + SAFI to apply across new engagements and center learning to develop solid, cutting-edge strategies that push our clients closer to their goals by engaging in equitable, systems-change work.

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