A learning agenda includes a (1) set of questions addressing critical knowledge gaps (2) a set of associated activities to answer them and (3) products aimed at disseminating findings and designed with usage and application in mind. A learning agenda can help you:
Test and explore assumptions and hypotheses throughout implementation and stay open to the possibility that your assumptions and hypotheses are not accurate;
Fill knowledge gaps that remain during implementation start-up;
Make more informed decisions and support making your work more effective and efficient.
A learning agenda can also help guide performance management planning by setting knowledge and information priorities. For example, a learning agenda can assist with prioritizing evaluations and research activities as well as in determining key indicators.
A learning agenda can also be a useful process through which to collaborate with peers and colleagues, fill gaps in knowledge and generate new evidence that we can then use to adapt our work. Ideally, you should develop a learning agenda during the design phase of a strategy, project, or activity, after you have developed a results framework or development hypotheses. At the strategy (CDCS) level, a learning agenda can form part of the Mission’s required Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Plan. The same is true for required Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Plans at the project and activity levels. Whatever the level, in formulating a learning agenda, the goal is to create a list of prioritized learning questions that, when answered, will help you work more effectively and make better, more informed decisions. To do so, it is important to involve both the generators of knowledge and the users (e.g., program staff, implementing partners, monitoring and evaluation staff, decision-makers, etc.).
Set the context. Is the learning agenda meant to address knowledge gaps in the Mission strategy? Or, for a specific activity or project? Make connections between the strategy, project, and associated activities at the onset to ensure that learning at each level is aligned. Being explicit about the focus may also help you determine the internal and external stakeholders you should engage to develop the learning agenda. Intentionally engaging with leadership can be critical in determining the scope of a learning agenda.
Review/clarify the theory of change. The development hypothesis at the strategy level or the theories of change at the project and activity levels are the starting point for a learning agenda. Review whether these are still valid, and identify any gaps in logic or underlying assumptions.
Develop and prioritize learning questions. This is an opportunity to be intentionally curious about your activities, projects, and strategies. Ideally, this process is highly consultative, involving as many different stakeholders as possible. Think about key decision points that will likely arise during planning and implementation. What learning questions, if answered, would help you make better, more informed decisions at these key points and generally work more effectively? Linking learning questions and themes to relevant policy objectives and strategies can provide the organizing framework for more specific questions elicited from stakeholders, and help to ensure that the agendas serve and relate to broader strategic priorities and decision-making needs.
Plan and resource learning activities. Learning activities are the means by which we generate, analyze, and synthesize learning to answer our priority questions. Learning activities include analyses, performance and impact evaluations, performance and context monitoring, literature reviews, research and capturing the tacit and experiential knowledge of stakeholders.
Determine what mix of learning activities could best help you answer learning questions. Determine what mix of learning activities could best help you answer learning questions. Learning activities are the means by which we generate, analyze, and synthesize learning to answer our priority questions. Learning activities can include analyses, performance and impact evaluations, performance and context monitoring, literature reviews, academic or technical research, and capturing the tacit and experiential knowledge of stakeholders. In prioritizing learning activities, consider when learning is needed (and at what frequency) to inform key decisions. Additionally, ensure that learning activities align with available resources.
Ensure that the learning generated supports decision-making processes. Learning is not the end goal, but rather the means by which we achieve our development outcomes more effectively and efficiently. By understanding how the decision-making process works, we can better direct both the timing of learning activities and the analysis and synthesis of learning generated so that it enables decision-makers to manage adaptively. Carefully consider, therefore, what format or modality might be most likely to reach the desired audiences. Infographics, innovative data visualizations, podcasts, webinars, videos, interactive web pages, and in-person convenings are just some ways to ensure that learning informs decision making.
Stay open and curious. Be open to the possibility that your development hypothesis/theory of change could be wrong.
Collaborate with peers. Learning agendas provide opportunities to engage in iterative, consultative processes that can foster engagement and buy-in, enhance learning agenda relevance and use, and facilitate coordination and collaboration. However, it is also important to know when and how to limit consensus-building to keep efforts moving forward and avoid “consensus fatigue.”
Engage with external stakeholders, especially local knowledge sources. Collaboration is critical in establishing and implementing learning agendas. Bringing stakeholders into the design process will improve the quality of the learning questions and increase buy-in and stakeholders’ willingness to contribute to implementation of learning activities. Moreover, checking whether other stakeholders have already explored your learning questions will help you avoid reinvestigating a question that has already been adequately explored.
Include learning activities that go beyond traditional M&E. Learning for continuous improvement often requires multiple knowledge sources. These should often include monitoring and evaluation activities, but they can also include activities like in-person group seminars and workshops, formal presentations among working groups and communities of practice, and the collation and dissemination of case-studies and stories related to tacit knowledge and experiences.
- Keep your learning agenda alive. As you begin to answer your learning questions, further questions may be sparked, leading the team to question the theory of change, adjust learning questions, or modify learning activities. By evaluating your learning agenda periodically, you can ensure its continued relevance.