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Community Contribution

What Does the Literature Say about Collaborating, Learning and Adapting? (Fall 2017 Update)

Nov 28, 2017
Katherine Haugh

Did you know that purposeful reflection on one’s accumulated experience leads to greater learning than the accumulation of additional similar experience? This is one of the many things I learned while conducting the fall 2017 update to our literature review on collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA). This is the third iteration of our ongoing literature review on the evidence base for CLA.

Anecdotal evidence shows that collaborating, learning and adapting matter for organizational effectiveness and development outcomes. But what have researchers studying these approaches actually found?

In our review of academic journals and grey literature, we found that USAID’s approach to collaborating, learning and adapting incorporates practices that have proven valuable in a wide range of sectors and organizational contexts.

The literature confirms our collective experiences that CLA can contribute to both organizational effectiveness and development results.

Here are three new findings:

  1. Continuous learning is linked to job satisfaction, empowerment, employee engagement and, ultimately, improved performance and outcomes.

A growing body of evidence from both private and public sector organizations recognizes that having a strong organizational learning culture increases psychological empowerment and sense of autonomy, which drives a collaborative team culture, high levels of commitment, and employee retention. In the USAID context specifically, CLA is strongly related to staff empowerment, engagement, and job satisfaction.

  1. Managing adaptively is more likely to improve outcomes when decision-making autonomy is placed as close to field staff and local partners as possible.

In the development context, the literature indicates that successful adaptation is more likely to occur on teams that placed decision-making authority as close to the frontline staff and partners as possible. This evidence also echoes findings from the broader public management literature that decentralized authority is associated with better performance. Evidence from both aid agencies and developing country governments supports this conclusion, suggesting that greater autonomy supports project adaptability and flexibility.

  1. Evidence-informed decision making is more likely to occur when decision makers themselves demand, define, and interpret evidence.

The literature identifies a number of principles for ensuring the use of evidence in making decisions. These include assessing the needs and identifying specific demands of users, understanding and engaging with target audiences throughout, and ensuring ongoing engagement with and between users and producers of evidence. Research shows that evidence cannot be separated from its social context. Even when good-quality, relevant, and reliable research is available, straightforward application is difficult. Several studies suggest that successful implementation of research necessitates the interest and involvement of decision makers and an explicit focus on ideas, practices, and attitudes specific to the context of users.

The full literature review summary and executive brief are posted on USAID Learning Lab. Take a look and tell us what you think in the comments section below.

What USAID and LEARN are doing to build the evidence base for CLA

Strengthening the base of evidence around CLA’s contribution is a key area for further research. To this end, USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning and the LEARN contract are pursuing an “Evidence Base for CLA (EB4CLA)” work stream that includes several complementary lines of inquiry, addressing the questions highlighted above. These include:

  • Updates to the literature review: We update our literature review semi-annually. We request that interested parties contact us with any articles that should be included at: [email protected], with the subject line: Evidence Base for CLA.

  • CLA Case Competition Analysis: We review cases submitted through the CLA Case Competition to analyze how the CLA approaches have contributed to organizational effectiveness and improved development results. The first Case Competition analysis was released in the summer of 2017 and covers entries from the 2015 competition.

  • Learning Network of Implementing Partners: USAID/PPL and USAID/E3/localworks, the LEARN contract, and the Knowledge-Driven Agricultural Development contract convene and facilitate a learning network aimed at developing methods to measure CLA’s contribution to organizational effectiveness and development results. Launched in November 2016, the learning network includes five grantees, whose learning is synthesized and shared via USAID Learning Lab.

  • USAID Learning Dojo: USAID/PPL and LEARN collaborate with other operating units at USAID, including the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Center, localworks, the Office of Forestry and Biodiversity, and the Global Development Lab to address these key learning questions and leverage the knowledge each operating unit brings to bear about effective CLA and its contributions to development outcomes.

  • Additional studies: These studies employ a range of methods, including evidence reviews, case studies, theories of change analysis, and contribution analysis, to answer the question of whether an intentional, systematic, and resourced approach to CLA contributes to development outcomes.

We are excited to share this work with you in the future and also want to hear about evidence you are generating to answer these learning questions and what you would most like to learn about. Again, please contact us at [email protected] with the subject line: Evidence Base for CLA.

We also hope our evidence building work is responsive to the needs and interests of our larger community. Please share your feedback with us by emailing it to [email protected]. Thank you!