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Strategic Learning and Milking Cows 

I was recently invited to participate in a session for the 2012 National Conference of the Grantmakers for Effective Philanthropy (GEO). The session is titled “The Hard Truth About Strategic Learning in Five Minutes,” and it will include 10 presenters who will share personal insights on the use of evaluation to promote strategic learning in foundations. Since I was invited to this session I have been reflecting on some of my life experiences that illustrate some “hard truths” and lessons learned about implementing strategic learning evaluations. As I reflected on my experiences, I discovered that my passion to use data to inform decision making in organizations started long before I formally started doing evaluations at FSG.

My first effort to implement strategic learning in an organization goes back to my time working at my father’s farm in Capilla de Guadalupe in Mexico. When I was 16 years old my father put me in charge of our milk production. Even though I grew up on a farm, I always had a fascination with computers, so I told my father that I would accept the job, but I needed to buy specialized software to help us manage the 200 cows we had on the farm. I was very excited to have a system that could tell us precisely when our cows needed to get pregnant, when to stop milking them, and so on. It took me some time to convince my father about the benefits of the system but after I showed him the impact it could have on the farm’s overall goal of producing more milk, he was fully on board. And, there I was, my very first time helping an organization generate relevant data that could be used for better decision-making!

During the implementation of this learning system I came across a hard truth about incorporating strategic learning approaches into an organization’s operations. Soon I found that collecting relevant data won’t necessarily translate into organizational change if the staff doesn’t understand the benefit of using such data to make decisions. After six months of hard work collecting data on each of our cows, I started generating reports and giving those reports to my father’s employees. The reports were providing relevant data on how to manage our cows, but the employees were not using the information. They didn’t understand how a computer operated by the son of the owner was going to optimize processes that had been in place for more than 40 years.

Changing organizational culture is challenging especially when the procedures become embedded in the organization’s everyday functioning. We implemented the strategic learning approach because I had the support of my father; however, the learning system did not work until I helped the employees understand how the changes would benefit the system and improve their work life. I treated them as the real experts and tailored the reports based on their suggestions to make sure they would find them useful. After a few months, the employees were not only using the data, but they were also getting involved and suggesting new reports and ways to improve the way we were managing the farm. The farm became a learning organization and we started having healthier cows that produced more milk. I remember making my dad proud; of course earning money to buy that new video-game was an added bonus!

As I reflect on my work as an evaluator at FSG, I find myself incorporating some of the things I learned from this experience at my father’s farm in my daily work. When we develop Strategic Learning and Evaluation systems at FSG we help our clients define a strategy that will help them achieve their goals, help them generate relevant information that can be used for decision making, and conduct interviews with leadership, staff, and other stakeholders to make sure that resulting evaluation findings meet the needs and expectations of the organization. Finally, we facilitate working sessions to ensure that staff understand and feel ownership of the new system, and are able to use the evaluation processes and findings to support individual, group and organizational learning.

Do you have a similar experience where you learned about evaluation in a seemingly unrelated project? Share it with us in the space below.

Efraín Gutiérrez

Former Associate Director of Equity Partnerships, FSG