Learning! Everyone says they want to do it, but…

“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:

  1. 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. Intentional/Unintentional: reflects whether the learning experience is thought-through and planned (intentional), or if learning happens through daily experience and/or is serendipitous (unintentional).

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:

  1. Engaging in Reflection – creating space, slowing down, paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, creating alternative interpretations, creating new theories of action

  2. 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

  3. Asking Questions – seeking clarification, probing assumptions, reasons and evidence, illuminating viewpoints and perspectives, probing implications and consequences, questioning the questions (Socratic questions)

  4. Identifying and Challenging Values, Assumptions and Beliefs – asking questions (testing assumptions), surfacing mental models, seeking evidence, understanding inferences

  5. 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.

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