Learning Agenda Playbook shares ‘how’ of utilization-focused approach

Feb 19, 2020 by LAB/EIA and USAID LEARN Comments (0)
  • Are you thinking about, or actively involved in, planning or implementing a learning agenda effort?
  • Do you support learning and adaptive management within your organization?
  • Are you interested in options for intentional and systematic learning methods?

Check out this new learning agenda resource from the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Office of Evaluation and Impact Assessment (Lab/EIA) and the USAID LEARN contract!

Learning in the Lab cover image


What is the Playbook?

Learning (in the) Lab: A Utilization-Focused Learning Playbook is designed to share with our colleagues the tools and resources we’ve used to design, develop, implement, and iterate upon a bureau-wide, utilization-focused learning agenda called the Lab Evaluation, Research, and Learning (ERL) Plan. A process, as well as a series of products, the ERL Plan was designed to strengthen the Lab’s ability to learn, and continuously improve its programs, operations, and strategy. Initially facilitated by EIA, the Plan is holistically informed by—and serves to further institutionalize—strategic learning and adaptive management through collaborative efforts across the Lab. This work also contributes to the evidence base for the Agency-wide Self-Reliance Learning Agenda - an effort to support USAID as it reorients its strategies, partnership models, and program practices to achieve greater development outcomes and foster self-reliance with host country governments and our partners.

Through this Playbook, we hope to inspire and equip others to bring learning and evidence utilization to the fore in their own work by providing practical examples of how we applied innovative thinking from the disciplines of human- and user-centered design, organizational development, and adult learning to operationalize the Lab ERL Plan. This document also serves as a compilation of relevant tools, resources, and insights developed by others at USAID whose knowledge and experience with learning agendas directly benefited the Lab’s learning work. 

What is a utilization-focused approach to learning? Isn’t this just Collaborating, Learning, and Adaptation (CLA)?


Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA), are a set of practices that, when systematically planned and adequately resourced for, help us improve the effectiveness of our work. Learning Agendas—a set of broad questions directly related to the work that USAID conducts, which when answered, enable us to work more effectively and efficiently—are one of the ways that operating units across the Agency practice strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management. This Playbook capitalizes on the existing tips, guides, tools, resources, and examples of the general ‘what’ and ‘why’—of learning agendas; including the CLA Toolkit—while expanding on the ‘how’ of designing and implementing learning agenda processes and products to better enable use of learning and evidence in decision making. 


The Playbook and utilization-focused learning approach were developed based on a common challenge identified during a cross-bureau CLA learning agenda effort: while learning agendas are meant to facilitate the knowledge cycle, in which knowledge is 1) generated, 2) synthesized and translated, 3) disseminated, and 4) used to adapt our strategies, programs, and practices—often, learning teams are asked to focus our resources and efforts at the “beginning” of the cycle; investing in evidence generation and synthesis — and then running out of steam when it came to translation, dissemination, and eventual use. We learned that sometimes, by the time the evidence from our respective efforts had been generated and synthesized (and even disseminated), the opportunity to use it had been missed.

To attempt to bridge this gap, in developing the Lab ERL Plan, we asked ourselves: “How might we design and implement a learning agenda that completes the full knowledge cycle, improving the Lab’s ability to utilize evidence in decision-making?” The initial answers to this question—based on successes, failures, and many iterations on the Lab ERL Plan process and products—are what we have documented here as a utilization-focused approach. While we are continuously learning, and refining this approach, we hope that by offering recommended steps in a ‘play-by-play’ guide format, we will help others know how to get started or otherwise adapt their learning efforts to enable the full knowledge cycle.

The Playbook breaks down approaches to integrating a utilization focus throughout a learning agenda into four phases (Define, Discover, Design, and Deliver), each comprised of action steps. While incorporating a utilization focus beginning at the earliest phases of learning agenda development is ideal, readers can engage with the phases or action steps most relevant to their work in the order most useful to them.


Graphic depicting process for utilization-focused learning, including Define, Discover, Design, and Deliver phases


Check it out, tell us what you think!

At this stage, we are very much interested in feedback that can improve the content and design of the Playbook. For example - put yourself in the shoes of someone tasked with designing or implementing a learning agenda:

  • How might the Playbook help you achieve this task? What else is needed?
  • Is the Playbook written and designed in a way that makes sense? What content might make it more useful, or how might a different design/ format be more useable?
  • The Playbook contains a lot of information. How might we simplify it?
  • Does the Playbook inspire you to pursue a utilization focus? What feels missing?

We would love to hear your insights on these, or any other comments or questions you might have on this early prototype of the Playbook in the comments below!