Learning must be user-owned (report from TA LEARN, part 2)

I got to spend a few days last week at the the third TA LEARN workshop, hosted by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). Around 70 practitioners, researchers, funders, and the occasional consultant gathered to assess and advance the state of practice on transparency, accountability, open governance, and related issues. Here’s the second in a series of three takeaways.

Yesterday, I wrote about how learning is adaptation. The development sector increasingly talks about creating “learning organizations.” The best indicator that an organization has learned is not whether individuals within that organization have learned anything, but rather, whether the organization itself has adapted.

Which suggests a related question: What sort of individual learning lends itself to organizational learning and adaptation?

Takeaway #2: Learning must be user-owned.

During one breakout session, it became clear that real-time learning in programs hinges on putting the “users” of that learning in the driver’s seat. If organizational learning is adaptation, then the users of learning are the ones who must implement that adaptation. That certainly includes program staff, but probably also a range of partners. These learning users are the best positioned to gather various types of data, interpret and understand it, decide what to do next, and put those decisions into action.

User-owned learning is another lens for thinking about local knowledge. It’s not enough to simply respect local knowledge (aka just “knowledge”—full stop). That’s merely the first stage of user-owned learning enlightenment. The second stage ensures that lessons drawn from that knowledge are reflected back to those who provide it, rather than extracted for use elsewhere and never heard from again. The third, most enlightened stage, allows space and encourages (local) knowledge to develop into its own learning and adaptation, led by the same actors who brought that knowledge to the table.

This may seem obvious, until you remember that much formal “learning” in our sector is outsourced to donor-dispatched researchers or fly-in-fly-out consultants who have limited engagement with program staff or partners. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as learning for other people. Hiring someone else to learn for you is like paying another student to write your essay: you might get away with it at first, but the professor’s questions during class will reveal that you didn’t put in the work. Likewise with organizational learning.

To the extent that researchers or consultants are involved, they’ll better facilitate user-owned learning (and perhaps be users themselves) if they have ongoing relationships with the other actors.

Which brings me to the final takeaway from TA LEARN: learning and adaptation depend on relationships. More on that point soon.