Remembering the Value of Learning

Mar 12, 2015 by Piers Bocock Comments (0)

This post was written by Piers Bocock, Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN Contract. Piers has been working in KM and communications for 20 years, in health, economic development, agriculture, and climate sectors.

In principle, it’s hard to argue against the importance of learning. We believe every child needs education because learning provides opportunities to grow, to change, to excel. We want our kids to learn – not just in school, but in the world – to expand horizons and to be able to adjust to an ever-changing world. Those who continue learning beyond the basics – people with college degrees, master’s degrees, PhDs – are increasingly valued as they acquire more learning. 

And yet in much of today’s working world, we assume that we’ve learned what we need to learn and that now it’s time to do. How often do you get time built into your work-week to pause and reflect, let alone adjust based on that reflection? How often is organizational learning limited to an occasional online training course to satisfy an accountability requirement? When was the last time you took time to do some additional learning as part of your job and then had the opportunity to apply it? 

Somehow, along the way, many organizations become too “busy” to learn. They are forced into being reactive rather than proactive. They jump on bandwagons of new approaches rather than building their own. They sit back and wait for an approach to be proven before being willing to try – and sometimes, to fail at – something different. Or they rely on the application of “best practices,” and when they fail, blame it on poor implementation. 

In international development, there is a long history of this. We take ideas from something that worked in one country and design a whole project around that approach to implement elsewhere. We spend millions of dollars over multiple years and at the end of the project, we move on. If we’re lucky, we evaluate the project, but in most cases that evaluation is more about accountability and whether it worked rather than how or why. If a project did work, we call it a success story, put a nice picture on it, post it on a website, and call it learning. But is it really? Of course not.

In recent years a number of development agencies are experimenting with new, more dynamic approaches to development that rely on more flexible, learning-based approaches that acknowledge some basic realities: project results depend on a variety of complex factors and contexts that are, in most cases, unique to a particular location or political reality; projects designed in three- or five-year blocks are much less adaptable than those that have the expectation of iteration based on ongoing monitoring and reflection built in; collaboration among all stakeholders, while time-consuming, is vital; and that ongoing learning is a must.

USAID LEARN is just one way in which the US Agency for International Development (USAID) values learning by investing in building the capacity of its missions and bureaus to collaborate, learn, and adapt in a more institutionalized way. We practice what we preach by building in time for reflection. We are constantly checking and rechecking our assumptions. When we stumble, we acknowledge the fall, look at why we fell, and analyze what we could have done differently, and when appropriate, we adapt. Reflection Fridays, after action reviews, iterative development, and collaborative program design are all approaches that we use on ourselves. And when we work with USAID missions, we discover that many are already using learning-based approaches, whether they realize it or not. 

USAID LEARN is a new mechanism out of USAID’s Learning, Evaluation, and Research (LER) Office in the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL), designed to support strategic learning and knowledge management at USAID to improve the effectiveness of programs in achieving sustainable development outcomes.

Watch this space over the coming months to see different ways in which USAID is putting learning at the heart of all it does to help ensure lasting development impact. Or to learn more about how USAID LEARN can provide support to missions, please contact