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Learning Agendas: The Five Most Important Things You Need to Know

Apr 26, 2017
Matthew Baker

Learning Agendas Word Cloud

In a famous Harvard Business Review article, management guru Peter Drucker told us that the private sector can learn a lot from nonprofits. One area where nonprofits and the government are leading the way is the use of learning agendas as an organizational learning tool to improve effectiveness and efficiency. This blog makes the case for why and how a learning agenda should be top of your “to do” list, and we hope to convince you to take the next step. Simply put, a learning agenda can make your organization smarter and more effective.

The use of learning agendas is growing within USAID and the Federal Government. In our recent landscape analysis of the use of learning agendas within USAID and five other federal agencies, we identified 17 agendas within USAID/Washington alone.

The research, which took place from September 2016-March 2017, involved discussions with 60 people and examined the interest in and use of learning agendas, their value as tools to base decisions on evidence and support organizational change. In addition to surveying the number and types of efforts, the report details learning agenda experiences, recommendations and lessons learned.

As learning agendas become more commonly used, here are the five most important things you need to know about the concept, its benefits and what to bear in mind when developing one. To read more about promising practices, challenges, and lessons learned related to learning agendas, check out the full learning agenda landscape analysis report here.

  1. Learning agendas can reinforce strategy and policy.

Most of the learning agenda initiatives we studied linked their learning questions and themes to relevant policy objectives and strategies. These high-level objectives often provided the organizing framework for more specific questions elicited from stakeholders, and helped ensure that the learning agendas served and related to broader strategic priorities and decision-making needs. Often this was linked to the importance of leadership support and adequate resources. In particular, explicit mandates, dedicated resources, and increased visibility for learning agenda efforts provided credibility and signaled priority that motivated broad-based participation in formulation, implementation and use of learning agendas.

  1. Learning agendas support organizational change as well as learning.

Formulating and implementing learning agendas often has benefits beyond just the generation of knowledge and evidence, such as organizational and cultural change. Agendas were often framed as providing opportunities to model behavior favorable to learning and providing a focus to direct efforts around using evidence in decision-making. One of the challenges our research highlighted was dissemination of new knowledge, but the process of formulating an agenda often catalyzed valuable conversations with colleagues about learning and the use of evidence in decision-making. A focus on using evidence to inform decisions increased the relevance and application of new learning inspiring the development of innovative products and platforms such as webinars and infographics for specific audiences.

  1. Learning agendas can be used to foster adaptive management across an organization

One of the features of learning agendas is their flexibility and scalability to accommodate different levels of inquiry and a mixture of purposes.  Learning agendas are often viewed by developers as a dynamic, “living process” with built-in feedback loops that adapted learning questions, activities, and products to reflect changes in evidence needs, contexts, or priorities. Learning agendas are therefore “living documents” intended to be maintained and updated as time goes on to ensure relevance and applicability (see point 4). As such, they are a tool for organizations to institutionalize adaptive management by  understanding its most critical issues and attempting to find answers to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.

Learning Agenda Journey

  1. Learning agendas come in different forms but have a set of common steps

While there continues to be varied and nuanced language around learning agendas with terms such as “evidence-building roadmaps” and “learning projects” often chosen, almost all these efforts have a number of commonalities in the process. Learning Agendas normally comprise three main components: learning questions, learning activities and learning products. The process often begins with a consultative process to discuss themes, theories of change, and gaps in knowledge. After this step, a review is often conducted of the existing research and evaluation findings. Following this curation step, learning questions are formulated and prioritized often within thematic areas. These questions are then addressed in a plan that details learning activities. Learning activities can include not just formal research or studies but also experiential learning and even policy-related activities. These activities usually drew on multiple knowledge sources and result in a set of products that are often tailored and disseminated to specific audiences. Products ranged from formal reports to infographics, webinars, websites and videos. Lastly, many learning agendas update their learning agendas, closing the journey by repeating these steps.

  1. The keys to successful learning agendas are: using multiple knowledge sources, collaborative processes and focusing on application and usage

In our research, there appeared to be three main factors related to successful agendas. First, learning agenda efforts drew on a variety of knowledge sources to enhance learning, including experiential learning. Sharing experiences of our work is an all too often missed opportunity but can provide clues and information to build our contextual knowledge of how, why and when our interventions work or don't work as planned. Second, interviewees emphasized the importance of integrating iterative, consultative processes with diverse stakeholders throughout the formulation and implementation of learning agendas. Knowing when and how to limit consensus-building  to keep efforts moving forward and avoid “consensus fatigue” also proved equally important. Finally, focusing on knowledge use to inform decisions increased the relevance and application of new learning.

Learning agendas can be a powerful tool to focus learning efforts on knowledge or evidence gaps and can be a robust driver of organizational change. Could learning agendas be useful in your work? Where have you found them most useful? Do you have recommendations about how to create learning agendas? And of course, if you have worked on a learning agenda not included in the report, we would love to hear from you. Share your thoughts by commenting below.