Sparking Collaborative Learning and Innovation within Development

Apr 28, 2015 by Learning Lab Comments (0)

Development practitioners around the world may face similar challenges when planning, implementing, or evaluating activities. Unfortunately, there’s often neither the time nor the space to learn how others have overcome or adapted to these challenges. Individual teams, activities, or organizations may instead develop their own tools and methodologies as different circumstances arise. While helpful for that particular context, the effectiveness and relevancy of these tools and methodologies cannot be fully explored without piloting each and incorporating reflective learning into the development process. This task may be too big for one team to pursue alone.

Peer learning approaches can often provide practitioners with a channel through which they can discuss these common challenges and related best practices. One type of peer learning approach in particular can also help the development community test assumptions and pilot new learning and innovation. These are called learning networks.

Over the past decade, USAID has initiated more than a dozen learning networks, and continues to encourage their use through its larger Collaborating,
Learning, and Adapting (CLA) approach. Learning networks are designed to bring together a select group of individuals to discuss some of the most pressing challenges within a particular sector. Over the life of a learning network, the participants will not only build a stronger relationship with colleagues from partner organizations, but will affect change through the pursuit of both internal learning agendas and a larger collaborative learning agenda. Ultimately, these learning agendas will help participating members bring this new learning to scale throughout the broader sector. 

One example of a learning network is the USAID-sponsored Growing Organizational Value Chain Excellence (GROOVE) Learning Network, which ran from 2009-2012. This learning network brought together four organizations to research, pilot, and generate new thinking related to the value chain approach. For more than three years, the GROOVE Learning Network participants worked to identify some of the most pressing issues facing those who worked on value chains and then collectively developed tools to help inform the larger sector. In particular, the learning network focused on developing knowledge products related to both capacity development and monitoring and evaluation.  These learning efforts were then shared out with the larger value chain community through collaboration with partner organizations, which allowed the knowledge products to be highlighted on relevant knowledge sharing platforms and at industry conferences.

Following the completion of the GROOVE Learning Network, USAID developed the Learning Networks Resource Center here on Learning Lab to help support the learning network approach and spark discussion around its use. USAID has recently begun a process of updating this Center to provide new content and a more cohesive design. The Learning Lab team would like to invite you to visit the Center in the coming weeks to view these changes and ask any questions you may have about the learning network approach. We encourage you to use these learning networks to help answer technical and sector-level learning questions. If you have experience with learning networks that you would like to share, the Learning Lab team would also like to hear from you. Please email us by clicking on the “Contact” link at the top of this page. We look forward to hearing more from our fellow learners!

CLA in Action articles are intended to paint a more detailed picture of what collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) looks like in practice. Unlike other disciplines, CLA is not a technical "fix;" it looks different in different contexts. This series will showcase examples of intentional collaboration, systematic learning, and resourced adaptation, some of which you may find applicable to your own work. The case studies, blogs, and resources represented in this series document the real-world experiences of development practitioners experimenting with these approaches for the benefit of sharing what's possible.