MEL Matters: Learning from learning

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MEL Matters: Learning from learning

November 27th, 2019

by Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation

Many organisations tout themselves as ‘learning organisations.’ They have well-crafted vision and mission statements that prioritise reflection and adaptation as core principles, and they have glossy handbooks and guidance for staff on how to embed learning culture and practice.  My experience with most of these organisations, however, suggests that these claims do not stand up to even the slightest hint of scrutiny. Conversations with staff reveal work environments in which time constraints, external pressures or just bad management create barriers to thinking and learning. This is a problem for organisations working in complex systems or on complex issues, where we actually need people to think slower, not faster – to be able to process new ideas rather than relying on reflex or previous behaviour.

WFD is trying to be a different kind of learning organisation, and one of the first steps towards that has been the addition of pre-set learning questions to our programmatic quarterly reports. Based on three to four years of evidence drawn from our reporting system, we streamlined our reporting templates to put less emphasis on rote repetition of performance information and more focus on reflection and learning. Instead of asking for achievements, outcomes, and risks, we asked what teams were most proud of and what was prompting concern for the future. The aim was to encourage more reflective storytelling and less enumeration of jobs delivered. We also included three organisational learning questions based on assumptions or key pathways within our theory of change. We hoped to be able to build an evidence base from our staff around the reliability of these concepts in practice, with an eye towards revisiting and revising our theory of change based on the results.

What we found was that the leap from calling yourself a learning organisation and being one is large and that there are many factors militating against attempts to foster greater reflection and adaptation.

What we found was that the leap from calling yourself a learning organisation and being one is large and that there are many factors militating against attempts to foster greater reflection and adaptation. First, our chosen means of facilitating learning was flawed. Actors within the international development space have become conditioned to view reports as purely accountability-oriented mechanisms. This is evident for anyone who has read the bland, sanitised ‘lessons learned’ sections of standard reports, but we had hoped that by ringfencing our learning section within the report we could avoid this pitfall. We didn’t. Many responses came back phrased as justifications for programme design decisions; many others came back as ‘not applicable.’ There was clearly concern that this learning section was merely a veiled attempt to catch out programmes who were not addressing the topics covered by the questions. Going forward, we will divorce the learning process from the reporting process to avoid this inherent bias, hopefully creating a safer space for reflection and learning.

“The concept of learning means different things to different people depending on their location, their role, and their experience.”

We also discovered that as a complex organisation with over 30 country offices and over 150 staff the concept of learning means different things to different people depending on their location, their role, and their experience. We were very careful in selecting our learning questions to focus on issues that we at headquarters felt were universal and had relevance across a wide variety of contexts. Nevertheless, many of the fascinating on-the-ground lessons we received lost their potency when they were generalised up to corporate level. Deep insights into how to engage marginalised groups or spoiler groups ultimately boil down to generic lessons on stakeholder management when aggregated. On the other hand, some good generalised lessons that had potential to influence strategic decision-making at corporate level had little to offer to teams working in country. We had never intended this as an extractive exercise, believing that commonalities in approaches and aims across the organisation would provide sufficient fodder for cross-regional learning. But the process we initiated did not adequately account for the complexity of our organisation, so in future we will work differently to avoid similar outcomes.

So what has WFD’s foray into cross-organisational learning taught us? We picked up some interesting insights into the role of international commitments, such as the Open Government Partnership and the SDGs. It turns out they are not perceived to be particularly effective in catalysing changes in behaviour or practice among politicians or institutions, but they are useful in opening doors for collaboration.  We also surfaced lessons on contextual factors for women’s political leadership and practical tips on staying connected to busy programme participants.

We will continue to try to walk the walk on prioritising learning, even in a field in which rigidity, predictability, and accountability remain paramount.

Where we go next is not certain. We will continue to try to walk the walk on prioritising learning, even in a field in which rigidity, predictability, and accountability remain paramount. We know there will be no linear progression from where we are now to where we want to be, so we will experiment with new methods where we find them. Just this morning, I was introduced to an approach that captures micronarratives from individuals and creates frameworks for quantifying this qualitative information, allowing for comparative and trend analysis. It is often said that learning is a journey, not a destination, and we’ve only just begun…


This blog post is part of our MEL matters series. MEL matters is a series on our blog about WFD’s pioneering way of monitoring and learning from programmes. As we move towards new digital tools, outcome matrices as a standard, and a combination of real-time tracking and long-term reflecting, we are sharing the lessons we learn here. We hope MEL practitioners, donors and implementing partners can learn from and contribute to our ideas. For more information, please contact Sonja Wiencke at sonja.wiencke@wfd.org.

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MEL Matters: Learning from learning

Our director of research and evaluation, Graeme Ramshaw, outlines how WFD is trying to walk the walk when it comes to prioritising cross-organisational learning and drawing lessons from and reflecting on our programming.