A few days ago, a colleague and a friend Khalil Bitar خليل بيطار, asked the LinkedIn M&E community about the “L” in MEL, more concretely which activities and outputs M&E colleagues use as part of the organisational learning. Timely question for me too. I was thinking a lot about the Learning part of the MEL in the recent period but was also interested to see what other colleagues do in that area.
I’ve never structured my thinking about learning before, so the following paragraphs are my initial attempt to do it and contribute to the discussion.
From my point of view, even though it is often neglected, L is definitely inseparable from M and E. It continuously interacts with both monitoring and evaluation and if done systematically it leverages their utilisation within the organisation and externally. Furthermore, I see monitoring, evaluation and learning as important segments of the broader knowledge management system.
When I think about learning, I usually distinguish three learning layers which are interconnected but still distinctive in purpose, scope, focus, type of activities and outputs, and timeline.
Layer1: Ongoing reflection and learning
The first learning layer is at the level of the project or intervention. At this level, learning is “ongoing”, usually through “regular” feedback and reflection activities with the project team. It is focused on internal decision-making, mostly by using monitoring and context data to answer questions like: are we where we planned to be; what is going well, what not so well; are there any changes in the context to be aware of; what is the feedback from people and communities involved; do we need to adjust project logic (ToC), targets, etc.
How often to conduct learning activities depends on the project type, scope and dynamics. Basically, the definition of “ongoing” or “regular” depends on the context. While I was working on the refugee response, we did quick and dirty learning by reviewing context, needs and demographics every few days as migration routes alternated almost weekly. On the other side, in stable service delivery type of projects, learning activities can be better planned and scheduled every month or quarter, or even once or twice a year. Finally, in projects divided into phases or cycles, key learning activities usually follow the project dynamics.
I purposefully use the broad term “learning activities” as their format and type can vary. Several years ago, FSG shared a practical guide on Facilitating Intentional Group Learning which provides a short description of 21 learning activities. As I am not a method purist, I usually don’t follow recipes but rather combine elements which work for me in a given situation. Also, in terms of structure, my approach is to adjust to the context. On some occasions, reflection is a short segment of the regular team meeting, while on others it can be a well-planned and structured workshop.
For me, everything is about purpose, not format and structure. The whole idea of learning at the project level is to be responsive and adaptable. We should be vocal about that and clearly communicate this message with the project team and stakeholders. Real-life projects are rarely static and stable. On the contrary, challenges and changes in the context, scope or implementation are almost certain. Reflection and learning help us digest these changes and challenges, plan the response and appropriately adjust our approach. Once this idea of responsiveness and adaptability is clear and owned by the team, the type or format of learning activities is something to play with.
Layer 2: Evaluative work
The second learning layer is also focused on the project or intervention but includes the more evaluative type of work. Unlike the first layer which is about ongoing learning, this one is more structured and happens periodically or ad hoc. It can include evaluations (formative, end of the project, etc.), reviews, deep dives, lesson-learned workshops, etc. Each of these can be done internally or by external consultants. Again, what to include and who should do it depends on the scope, needs and organisational policies.
At this level, the purpose of learning is two-fold. On one side it serves project-level decision-making and just like ongoing reflection and learning it can support project responsiveness and adjustment. On the other side, it feeds into broader organisational learning and knowledge base, and informs the organisation’s strategies. Besides internal audiences, learning produced at this level can also contribute to external stakeholders.
Layer 3: Knowledge management and strategic learning
Finally, the third learning layer is about organisational knowledge management. Ideally, it sets strategic learning priorities and principles; thinks about key audiences; suggests approaches for capturing new learning/knowledge; and, defines what to do with the new learning/knowledge.
Strategic learning priorities and principles are usually defined in the learning agenda, strategy or framework. I’ve seen various formats of these documents, but common thing is that they identify knowledge gaps, define key learning priorities, areas and questions, suggest how to fill these gaps (or answer key questions), discuss key audiences and set expectations regarding the use of new learning/knowledge. In some cases, they are just brief top-level documents, but I’ve also seen some very detailed versions. Some organisations develop them at the central level only, while others develop learning agendas for the project, country, region, thematically, and so on. Cannot say which option is the better one, again it depends on the organisation’s needs, context, scope, and type of work.
However, setting a strategic learning framework and capturing new knowledge is not enough. Piling evaluations, reviews, insights, research and other reports is meaningless if all that learning/knowledge is not utilised. Knowledge management is the way to systematically tackle this issue. It can include steps like building an accessible and easy-to-navigate repository, formatting learning products for different audiences within and outside the organisation, organising learning/knowledge dissemination and supporting the use of new knowledge. If set in this manner, knowledge management becomes a vehicle for purposeful knowledge gettering, sharing and use.
Three learning layers support different but interlinked aspects of organisational learning. In my experience, focusing only on one layer is not enough.
However, even though “L” is a permanent part of the MEL, embedding learning into organisational processes and practice is not easy. There are a lot of challenges, from the organisational culture, through management support, to the lack of resources, time and people to work on it. Often, organisations and projects are understaffed and already overstretched with day-to-day work – planning, implementation, budgets, reporting, etc. – so they see learning activities just as an additional burden.
So, how can we make learning work in the organisation? From my experience, three things are crucial. First, learning has to be facilitated and intentional, as it won’t happen by itself. Second, it has to be part of the organisational culture and strongly supported and promoted by the management, if this is not the case it will not sustain. Finally, it has to be context-appropriate and designed to respect organisational and contextual realities.