While the concept of organisational learning has been popularised within the international aid industry in recent years, the persistent challenge is to ground the concept. In practical terms, what is learning? What actual mechanisms can be employed to promote learning in a structured way? How can learning be moved from a tacit process within individuals to a shared process among team members?
One practical understanding of learning has been proposed by Gharajedaghi:
“Learning results from being surprised: detecting a mismatch between what was expected to happen and what actually did happen. If one understands why the mismatch occurred (diagnosis) and is able to do things in a way that avoids a mismatch in the future (prescription), one has learned.”
The above quotation contains three practical mechanisms that an aid organisation can employ to operationalise the concept of organisational learning:
The first mechanism, ‘detection’ involves precisely articulating the changes anticipated in the lives of beneficiaries (i.e. ‘design’), and then systematically verifying the extent to which these changes have indeed been realised (i.e. ‘M&E’). ‘Detection’ is likely to be more meaningful when beneficiary communities are segmented on the basis of felt need, rather than treating them as a homogenous socio-economic group.
The second mechanism, ‘diagnosis’, moves beyond asking ‘what happened?’ (i.e. ‘detection’), to asking ‘why did it happen?’ In other words, there is a deliberate investigation of causal factors that have inhibited the anticipated change process.
The third mechanism, ‘prescription’, involves the application of lessons learned. That is, having ‘detected’ variance between planned and actual change, and having ‘diagnosed’ reasons for the variance, the plan may be modified in order to more effectively foster the desired changes . This is the ultimate purpose of learning. Learning is not an end in itself, but rather a means to greater effectiveness and beneficiary impact.
Arguably, these three mechanisms (detection, diagnosis, prescription) underpin the operationalisation of a ‘learning organisation’…rigorous iterations of design, M&E and innovation conducted on a structured, program-wide basis.