I had a chance to catch up with Alan Hudson yesterday, and the conversation brought me around to an idea that I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. Though admittedly still a bit abstract, here’s the idea.

We’ve made monitoring and evaluation—grouped together as M&E—a core expectation of any social or development effort. As I’ve argued before, M&E essentially serves a management function by supporting decisions at either the program/project level (for monitoring) or at the policymaker/donor level (for evaluation).

At any level, the practice is synonymous with merely tracking and measuring. You operationalize the practice by creating an M&E plan, hiring an M&E officer, and producing M&E reports. And that’s all well and good—I should know, because I’ve been that officer and written those reports.

However, both in M and in E, what we really care about is not the numbers that show up in the report. What we care about is what the numbers tell us and what we do with the numbers. This started to come out at last year’s M&E Tech conference, which focused heavily on the idea of feedback loops. It was an important recognition that the whole point is the changes that come about from M&E.

Put another way: what we really care about with M&E is what we learn and how we adapt in response to that learning. The next logical step would be to de-emphasize monitoring and evaluation as operational functions, replacing them with learning and adaptation: moving from M&E to L&A.

To make this concrete—perhaps for someone looking to apply complexity thinking, DDD, and related agendas in their work:

  • First, jettison the requirements for an M&E section in your project proposals and plans; replace that with an L&A plan.
  • Second, frame that plan around organizational processes and culture, rather than the research methods and indicators.
  • And finally, don’t hire M&E officers who think like researchers; instead, hire L&A advisors ones who think like consultants.

An important caveat is that L&A in practice would only create a first-order feedback loop, where information becomes available to inform a self-motivated change. A second-order feedback loop occurs when the information actually compels the change through some form of accountability. LA&A: learning, adaptation, and accountability. But I suspect that may be a bridge too far for much of the social and development sector.

  1. Happy to be part of the conversation! Looking forward to working out what a focus on Learning + Adaptation might mean for Global Integrity as we roll out our new strategy https://www.globalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/GlobalIntegrityLearningtoopengovernanceStrategysummary.pdf

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  2. Interested to know more about your idea of how researchers and consultants think. Is this difference an interest in finding out versus solving problems? I guess a lot of consultants are also researchers, so would be good to know how you understand the distinction. This is perhaps a bit harsh, but from some of the M&E reports I’ve read and M&E officers I’ve spoken to, I wish they did think more like researchers (curious, trying to really find out what’s going on, weighing up the evidence to reach conclusions), rather than thinking like donor reporters (get some numbers in time for the annual reports, reliability very much a secondary concern, etc)…

    Lots of the ‘M&E’ positions I see advertised are monitoring, evaluation, research and learning now – which perhaps involves some of what you’re thinking of. Do you feel those MERL posts are providing the functions you feel are needed – the feedback loops, thinking through the implications of monitoring data, encouraging reflection etc? I’d love to get more concrete examples of what an L&A role would involve and how it would differ. Have you seen any NGOs hiring L&A advisors to know how that worked? Any idea of what a L&A JD and person spec would involve?

    Sorry – lots of questions – thanks for the mid-afternoon stimulation!

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    1. Agree lots with your questions! Let’s work on the answers …

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  3. Just found some L&A type JDs – in case of interest for anyone…http://chk.tbe.taleo.net/chk04/ats/careers/requisition.jsp?org=MSI&cws=2&rid=4408 https://www.devex.com/jobs/liberia-collaboration-learning-and-adaptation-cla-advisor-357405 Not sure how different the roles are in practice or whether CLA is USAID-speak for M&E/MERL officer – I’d be interested to know from anyone with experience.

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    1. Kate: Great questions and prompts. A few thoughts:

      –On researchers v consultants: Yes, I basically mean the difference between finding and solving. I agree that a lot of M&E is just about donor reporting. A better version focuses on really understanding what’s really going on in the program—i.e. acting like the researchers you want to see. I’m making a pitch to go one step further, and maybe “consultants” is the wrong way to frame that, but what I mean is that an L&A advisor would work closely with the team to incorporate the M&E findings into their decision-making, helping to design strategy pivots or trial new program tools or whatever. They’d be sleeves-rolled-up in the work alongside the program team.

      –Nice finds on the JDs. I know a bit about USAID’s CLA efforts, though not enough to give any kind of broad commentary. I will say this: I think you’ll notice that both those JDs involve someone sitting outside the project team. What I’m describing above is much more integrated. Again, sleeves-rolled-up.

      But that’s not the only model, of course.

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  4. This is absolutely right and very neatly put. The only additional caveat I would throw in is that there will be no use appointing a learning and adaptation person if the organisation/programme is not committed to adapting — that is, making serious modifications in the light of experience to the way it goes about pursuing its ultimate objective. That’s hard for many organisations, either because they have as their raison d’être not just an objective but a definite, fixed way of pursuing that objective, often incorporated in the organisation’s name, or because they are under contract to adopt a fixed way of working, often reflected in a project title.

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    1. Glad you like the post. I absolutely agree about organizational commitment. As with many new roles, hiring an L&A advisor could either be a demonstration of an organization’s commitment—or a desperate attempt to pretend that it’s committed!

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    2. I have been working as an M&E Adviser on a program in the Pacific, where I provide part-time input working with a small full-time data collection team. We have the usual things like an M&E Plan, a set of indicators, etc. This could be a recipe for exactly the disconnect between ‘M&E’ and the learning, adaptation and management approach that you describe. But we do not have that disconnect, and the point of difference is definitely the attitude of the program’s senior management and donor funder. They involve me in management-level discussions, refer frequently to our M&E reports and our program logic – including in discussions with staff and government stakeholders – and think about how to make use of the information we collect in a range of ways. So yes, my experience confirms your point, David – it’s about the commitment of the organisation/program to learning and adaptation.

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  5. Dave,

    Broadly agree and have had similar conversations several times quite recently. As you and other commenters note, M&E is often fundamentally driven by donor accountability requirements, whereas L&A by organizational identity and culture, and the two may (or may not) be at odds. We explored this with a cross section of funders and implementers in a report we commissioned not long ago, which you may have run across. Here’s the link in case you missed it: http://www.transparency-initiative.org/news/funding-learning-and-impact-how-do-grant-making-practices-help-and-hinder-real-grantee-learning

    How about hiring MELA officers that think like action researchers? (who are generally very interested in both understanding and contributing to change!)

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  6. Great post! Readers may be interested: USAID is integrating Collaborating, Learning & Adapting (CLA) throughout our field programs in a way that is highly customized to country context and program, and supports reflection and iterative course correction on our part and with/by the organizations we fund to implement our programs. Learn more at http://www.usaidlearninglab.org .

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  7. Good one there; the piece is meant to stimulate interest and reactions I guess. What the M and E does basically is to stimulate learning and adaptation; don’t you think so?

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  8. Yes, the shift from ‘simply’ M&E to L&A should have happened yesterday. Two issues I think about. One, how to use M&E as a solid base/foundation for effective L&A; and the tradeoffs needed in the complex and fluid environment within which development projects are implemented.

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