Learning About Learning
Rebecca Flueckiger is a MERLA Operations Research Specialist with RTI International.
RTI’s Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, Learning and Adapting (MERLA) Community of Practice hosted a panel of distinguished guests to discuss USAID's Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) approach at an event titled “From learning to adapting: How do we get to learning, and where do we go from there?” Participants included Heidi Reynolds (MEASURE Evaluation), Easter Dasmariñas (USAID/Philippines, LuzonHealth Project), Tara Sullivan (K4Health), and Stacey Young (USAID/PPL). The event brought together an audience of nearly 250 individuals representing over 40 organizations (both in-person and online) who contributed to a rich and engaging discussion on CLA. If you were unable to attend or wish to review the discussion, the full recording can be found here.
Here are a few of our top takeaways from the event:
BUILD IT INTO WHAT YOU’RE ALREADY DOING
It is essential to build CLA into the intervention in a thoughtful and rigorous manner at the beginning of implementation to achieve better development outcomes. When putting together M&E plans, program implementation plans and work plans, practitioners should infuse them with learning and build a learning agenda that links all elements together. Heidi Reynolds described the challenge of “building the ship as we sail” and advised us to not start from scratch but build on the work of those who came before us and think forward on how others can build upon our work. Stacy Young’s words particularly resonated: “CLA is not a hobby you do on the weekends; it has to be an integral part of day-to-day programming.”
MOVE AWAY FROM LINEAR APPROACHES
We must shift away from traditional linear approaches toward adaptive management and systems approaches and remember that CLA is informed by AND informs adaptive management. Easter Dasmariñas explained how the USAID-supported LuzonHealth team became champions of CLA. While gathering and learning from their data, the LuzonHealth team realized that they were not doing intentional learning and adapting. They then changed gears and took a holistic systemic approach (MERLA). Through the application of MERLA, they augmented existing programmatic M&E with operations research and learning best practices and approaches. They further incorporated USAID’s CLA approaches and tools to ensure that they were not only synthesizing program learning, but also using it to inform programmatic adaptations, policy decisions, and communications and dissemination, both internally and externally. Easter explained: “Adaptive management requires openness and flexibility with local stakeholders. Having an open venue for exchange can help address issues of underperformance.”
MEASURE YOUR WORK AND LINK IT TO VALUE
Rigorous measurement of program implementation is key to providing data for programmatic decision making. Equally important is rigorous measurement of how CLA approaches and tools lead to enhanced program implementation and adaptive management. We need good knowledge management practices, tools and metrics to enable us to quantify and qualify learning, information and evidence related to program implementation and CLA. However, many implementers struggle with how to incorporate knowledge management best practices into their work. Tara Sullivan shared tools - developed by K4Health – to make this measurement easier and more standardized. Tara started off her discussion with the following perspective on knowledge management and how it links to CLA: "Knowledge management is really that enabler that we need for our learning and adaptation work."
KEEP THE FOCUS ON THE "C" IN CLA
While it is easy to take the C in CLA for granted, it is important to recognize the power and value of Collaborating to ensure that Learning can proceed to Adapting. Stacy Young advised us to start small and pilot our work, identify and engage with natural champions, start with low-hanging opportunities, build on early wins, encourage and enable partners to own wins, link with leadership to highlight the value of CLA, and be inclusive. We can have the best systems, research, and learning, but learning may not turn into adapting if we do not also have collaboration as the glue to ensure that stakeholders own the learning and are part of the decision making.
Through the discussions and Q&A many other points emerged that deserve further exploration, including streamlining learning deliverables, addressing the complexity of learning agendas, implementing user-friendly systems and adaptive learning loops, and how to build and foster learning in the field. Stay tuned for more on this from the RTI MERLA Community of Practice (MERLA@rti.org), #RTILearns.