Learning Across Development: DFID’s Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management Gathering

Oct 30, 2017 by Piers Bocock Comments (0)

Recently I had the opportunity to travel back to London, a city where I once lived.  And in addition to a few requisite smartphone pictures of monuments and historical buildings for my kids, I also brought back some heartening mental images for myself and those with whom I work here in Washington, D.C., including:

  • Chris Collison, renowned Knowledge Management and Learning consultant, standing in front of a room in London with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder; 
  • Clive Martlew, Learning and Leadership Lead for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), talking about generosity and curiosity; 
  • Margot Brown, the World Bank’s Director of Knowledge Management singing the praises of other development entities’ learning and knowledge management efforts; 
  • Bruce Hedley, a Director in the British Joint Forces Command talking about learning from failure; and 
  • Monica Matts from USAID’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Team, telling a story about a breakthrough in Tunisia based on an unconventional collaboration.

woman speakingThese snapshots were all thanks to an event for which DFID brought together learning “champions” from across their organization, other agencies, and implementing partners to share progress, approaches, and challenges in improving organizational learning capacity across the development sector.  

The conference was held at DFID’s Whitehall offices, which are connected to the Old Admiralty, a building steeped in tradition and learning (for centuries, the Royal Navy has been documenting exploration, discovery, learning, successes, and failures from which to learn). Monica Matts, a Senior Learning Advisor with USAID, and I were invited to share our experience integrating intentional, systematic, and resourced collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) across USAID, and to hear how others are addressing the challenges of making the world a better place in complex and diverse conditions. Talks from DFID, the Joint Forces Command, USAID, and the World Bank were supplemented with smaller concurrent workshops that looked at a number of learning and knowledge management initiatives from DFID and its partners. 

While there were numerous common threads across the many partners—the need for learning champions, the value of iterative approaches, the value of learning from failure, the challenges of relying on platforms, the importance of a diverse set of approaches that are context-appropriate, and more—the most salient one for me was the universal acknowledgement of the need to create, foster, and incentivize a culture of learning. Culture is a required building-block of both DFID’s and USAID’s learning self-assessment tools. Culture is paramount when it comes to open, rank-agnostic learning in the military. And a culture of learning underpins The World Bank’s new KM strategy.  

This shift away from reliance on KM “platforms” towards human-centered learning and peer-to-peer engagement and support has been happening for some time, but I believe that we’ve reached a tipping point in which KM and IT platforms are only the enablers of improved knowledge management and learning, only as effective as the culture that supports true learning. It’s exciting to see this shift, and I look forward to continuing to be part of the process, because whether we work for USAID, DFID or the World Bank; Dexis Consulting Group, IDS, or Oxfam, we’re all aiming towards the same goal of a safer, healthier, more equitable world; and learning will be the key to making effective contributions to that end.