Case studies as a tool for sector learning

How does a sector learn? What drives totally new practices, how do we verify and validate lessons from them, and which channels and mechanisms lead to their dissemination and iteration? These questions—which blur the line between knowledge management, academic research, systemic change, advocacy, and program evaluation—were on my mind last week.

I was in Berlin for a two-day workshop as part of the Global Delivery Initiative launch. This gathering followed loosely on an October gathering at Harvard, which I discussed on Reboot’s blog. The October event shared some high-level case studies and articulated principles for doing development differently—which was then distilled into the “Doing Development Differently” manifesto and is building toward a community of practice.

Last week’s event was somewhat narrower and more tactical in focus. Rather than articulating broad principles like the manifesto, the group in Berlin sought some agreement around a methodology and approach for case studies of better development practice. The event also touched on other aspects of how to leverage delivery know-how to improve development outcomes. (Ian Thorpe has given a thorough recap on the full event.)

This is essentially knowledge management on a sector-wide scale. KM is hard enough within a single organization, but when you start to cross organizational borders, you face a much larger coordination challenge. The difference is stark.

Most of our internal KM efforts aim to share information with others sitting elsewhere in our own organization, or with our future selves as we tackle similar challenges later. That means we have a somewhat intuitive sense of the end-users. Our biggest challenge is carving out the time to capture the knowledge in the face of urgent deadlines. Even once a projects ends, we’re more likely to run off to the next project; it takes real discipline to sit the team down for a debrief, capture what we’ve learned, and distill lessons.

In contrast, external KM efforts—i.e. sector-wide learning—have more actors and potential use cases involved. Some of the capacity constraints are mitigated by dedicated capacity at places like the World Bank, think tanks, or academia. However, this introduces three new challenges:

  • Differing incentives: knowledge sharing becomes intertwined with PR efforts or academic publishing considerations, potentially distorting what gets captured;
  • Unclear end-users: knowledge managers attempt to provide something useful to anyone and everyone across the sector, and risk providing something that’s useful to no one;
  • Absorptive capacity: many of the intended end-users struggle to keep up with the flow of new knowledge being produced and make meaningful use of it in their work.

Given these challenges, we might better think about knowledge facilitation: not trying to manage or direct knowledge, but rather creating space for exchange. We’re encouraging an epistemic community and fostering an ecosystem—with all the metaphors of community building and cultivation that those imply.

Case studies are one tactic for doing this. They allow positive examples to be held up for the lessons they provide as well as the values and norms they encourage. They also provide a level of detail and nuance that’s critical for the challenges this community faces: we know that development must be context-driven, politically aware, and adaptive in order to succeed; case studies allow us to capture that nuance and learn from it. The narrative form of case studies can also help the end-user/reader understand the experiences faced by the case study subjects, in order to better relate to the choices they made.

The Global Delivery Initiative is already underway, with GIZ, the World Bank, and others committed to creating case studies on various development successes (and maybe failures as well). There’s a methodology for these case studies, though variations are expected. There’s also an outline for a web platform that will share the result. How this will connect to the end-users is still a bit unclear. Closing that loop going forward will be critical.

Separately, the initiative is thinking about how to expand its tactical toolbox beyond case studies. There are other channels for influencing practice with the lessons and norms behind the case studies (social media, conferences, etc) as well as other knowledge products that will contribute to this. There are also targeted changes we can make at development institutions—around procurement rules, HR policies, and more—that will change the decision-making frameworks and organizational paths-of-least-resistance. These changes will be harder to make, but potentially more impactful than merely disseminating new knowledge to practitioners within those organizations.

My main takeaway from the conversations in Berlin is that changing the way our sector thinks and tackles problems will require a sustained effort. The epistemic community cuts across organizations, but if it’s not cultivated and organized, then we’ll fail to build on one another’s knowledge. We need our own learning to translate into sector learning.