Collaborating, Learning and Adapting at USAID: The Critical Role of Culture, Processes, and Resources

Jun 22, 2017 by Stacey Young Comments (0)

Stacey YoungThis Guest Editorial for the Food Security Network's Knowledge Management Task Force was written by Stacey Young, Senior Learning Advisor at USAID's Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning. Read her bio here.

USAID is investing agency-wide in systematic, intentional and resourced Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) because we believe that doing so will lead to better development. If you’re not familiar with CLA, you can learn all about it at There’s a ton of information there, and so no need for me -to give an overview here. Instead, I want to address a question we get asked a lot.

In encountering our CLA framework for the first time, some folks readily acknowledge the importance of “collaborating, learning and adapting” in the course of planning and implementing development programs – but they balk at “culture, processes and resources.” What are these “enabling conditions,” and why do they get so much emphasis in CLA?

Our answer is that enabling conditions are just that: the prerequisites that help ensure that we’re successful in our efforts to improve our development programs through coordinating and teaming up, generating and sharing knowledge, and course correcting as needed.

Most people who work in international development have had at least one of these experiences:

  • People get together to discuss how a program is going, but they don’t get into any real issues because they don’t want to look bad to their supervisors, or each other. They focus on defending their budget or their technical approach rather than exploring evidence and options for improvement.  
  • There’s evidence that a program isn’t working as expected, and people involved in it have a sense that it may need to be adapted, but no one can make the time to deeply analyze the evidence, there’s no clear decision making process for course correcting, and there’s no process to track and support follow-through on changes to implementation.
  • The team/office/organization keeps going over the same ground because decisions (and the thought processes that inform them) aren’t documented, and because departing staff don’t pass on what they know to incoming staff. Someone is tasked with establishing knowledge management practice for a team, office or organization, but they already have several other roles, little authority, and no KM budget.

These are just a few; there are many other examples of perennial challenges to ensuring our aid is effective. What they all have in common is that their solutions are best arrived at through a holistic approach to organizational learning and adaptive management.

How do we collaborate and learn together if we’re not open to new ideas and information, and supported to take risks? How can we build from what we learn to manage our development programs adaptively if we don’t manage our knowledge, value continuous improvement, and have processes in place to translate new learning into decisions about reworking our implementation approach? How do we capture and share our knowledge if we don’t have time and budget to do so? How do we genuinely grapple, together with our colleagues, with development challenges if we don’t acknowledge all that we don’t know about development, and support each other in trying to find better ways?

In other words – if we don’t have the necessary culture, processes and resources, we can’t collaborate strategically, learn continuously, and manage our programs adaptively – we can’t “do good CLA.” And doing good CLA is how we ensure that our development efforts enjoy wide buy-in, contribute meaningfully to the bigger picture (and the wide range of development actors and efforts underway in any given country), advance our understanding of development dynamics, and maintain a close fit between our programs and the changing contexts in which we’re implementing them. The enabling conditions make CLA possible, and thereby increase the chances that our development aid will be effective in improving the lives of the people we’re trying to help.