Straight off the Shelf: Unpacking your Utilization-Focused Learning Agenda
Previously we shared some of our reasoning behind the U.S. Global Development Lab’s efforts to develop a Utilization-Focused Learning Agenda (ÜFLA), which emphasizes program design for the last step of the Knowledge Cycle. We’re learning as we go and we don’t have it all figured out yet, but if an ÜFLA sounds like something that you’d like to try, we’re pleased to share with you some principles for developing and ÜFLA that we’ve learned over the course of implementing ours.
ÜFLAs are behavior change interventions - design your ÜFLA Program and Theory of Change accordingly
A robust program design for a Learning Agenda might sound a little overkill, but getting to USE requires a behavior change intervention for the people who are meant to use the findings. We need to identify the intended users of the learning, as well as their motivations, incentives, and opportunities for action. By doing so we can avoid (or make plans to overcome) barriers to use, and leverage momentum and opportunities that already exist.
But bias yourself toward action on implementation of the plan - don’t design it to death!
Remember that there is an opportunity cost to spending time and resources on design - if we take two years to answer a question, then another two years to support adaptation based on that answer, we may have missed the window in which that that adaptation could have made a real difference. Don’t let the “perfect” become the enemy of the “good enough” - remember that humans learn best by doing, so be willing to try some things even if they aren’t fully baked.
Engage champions and intended users of the findings from the beginning
Design and implementation of the ÜFLA should be a transparent and participatory process. If the people whose behavior we are trying to change (the USERS of your ÜFLA) are not feeling buy-in to the process and the content from the beginning, we are going to have a real uphill battle when you get to step 4 of the Knowledge Cycle. Identify users and champions (especially executive sponsors) early via stakeholder mapping and engagement and get their input or better yet, their ownership of the results and adaptations.
Resource appropriately for ALL phases of the knowledge cycle
One of the biggest challenges for any Learning Agenda, and especially for ÜFLAs, is securing sufficient human and budgetary resources to implement it. It’s fairly straightforward to commission a few studies or even a synthesis, but keep in mind that if we are striving for USE of the evidence, it’s more likely to be used when it’s coming from a trusted colleague. We’ve experimented with “insourcing” some aspects of our ÜFLA by assigning our own staff to conduct original research. This also alleviates some of the pressure on the budgetary resources, but it comes with a tradeoff - the people conducting this research must have dedicated LOE to do it. Ideally, the insourced research and/or synthesis should be their primary job responsibility so that the research doesn’t succumb to the tyranny of the urgent over the important. And don’t neglect to resource the behavior change aspect of the ÜFLA program design! That behavior change effort will often be a bigger lift than the other steps combined, so if this area is under-resourced, we’ve set ourselves up for failure before we’ve even begun.
Only strive to answer questions for which we will actually USE the answers to change our decisions and/or practices
There are a lot of things out there that would be “nice to know”. We have a plethora of academic partners and other development actors that are well-placed to help fill these gaps. Our value proposition in this space is toward maximum utility or “need to know” information. We should answer questions that have a direct implication for making different decisions or engaging in different practices than we would have without that information.
Stop at “good enough” data and evidence for decision-making
While there is always more we can know, it’s important to recognize when knowing enough to act on that knowledge. Don’t fall into the “paralysis by analysis” trap. If we can spend 50% more money to become 5% more certain of the outcome, is that a good use of resources? Will 5% greater certainty change the decision we would have made without the extra evidence? If not, we should use our judgment and lean towards investing in implementation. (Of course, there is an important caveat: do no harm - If there is a reason to believe that the decisions made within that 5% uncertainty could cause active harm, this changes the equation.) Remember that there is both a financial and an opportunity cost to waiting for more evidence – it takes time to gather and analyze it, and that’s time that we’re not implementing.
Keep your focus on who wants to use evidence, for what purpose, and what barriers they might encounter to use, and you’ll be on the right track!