Continuing the conversation

Allan Kaplan

Rather than responding to particular points or differences in view from the contributors, we decided to continue the conversation…

Understanding and purpose

JH The pieces show some important differences in emphasis about the purpose of learning. For example, Phil Buchanan raises (and dismisses) ‘learning for its own sake’ and Luc Tayart talks about ‘learning being instrumental – a means to an end’.

This makes me wonder if it is helpful to clarify how we understand learning – it is not a neutral word. For me, learning is an ongoing process of reflection (engaging and open and unpressured) on experience that enables a shift in understanding (of self, other, situation, context) that affects approach (which may mean no shift as a conscious choice). Also, I believe learning is going on all the time – whether we choose to call it that or not.

AK Well, either it is going on all the time, or not – by which I mean that, while it is indeed a natural process, it is often dormant, lazy, disengaged. The tragedy is that reflection often runs along routine paths that don’t take it anywhere new, but just repeat, confirm, consolidate. So while, if it is happening at all, it must indeed be ongoing and continuous, we can still strengthen its functioning.

JH Yet not if it is viewed as ‘instrumental’ and a ‘means to an end’ as this is machine-like language suggesting using tools or models (means) that lead to realizable ‘ends’ rather than a perpetual process of engagement and movement. Hence, learning is not easy, as Peter Laugharn suggests: ‘We were naive in our assumption that if we declared we were all for learning, it would naturally occur.’

AK Yes, this is the point. If learning is an instrumental means to an end then it implies that we can choose the times when we learn and when we don’t, which means we can engage in many activities without learning (simultaneously), which seems to me to imply that we can engage without thinking – except at specified times and according to certain mechanized procedures – which is not learning at all but something else, something ‘robot-like’ (having an ‘off-on’ switch) rather than human.

JH In these senses, one of the arts of learning is to surface the processes that are ongoing and make them more conscious. This is not likely to happen, as a number of contributors comment, when so much value is placed on ‘doing’ at the expense of learning. As Naa-aku Acquaye Baddoo says, it is hard to ‘swim against the powerful tide of world view’ and to leave ‘room to discover what was not planned or see processes as they emerge’.

AK We need a thinking which is alive, constantly and rabidly curious, a relentless paying-of-attention, if we are to approximate learning, not a time-bound and regulated procedure!

JH So to surface ongoing learning requires the potential for meaningful conversation, which takes me to the next reflection.

Relationship between values and learning

JH I am struck by how five contributors talk about the centrality of values to learning and yet in different ways. For Sándor Köles and Aleksandra Vesic, organizational dialogue on values enables ‘guiding principles’ of practice to emerge. Belinda Duff suggests, however, that conviction on values makes it hard to ‘hear the discordant’ or (quoting Barbara Stocking) that ‘It’s very hard to be passionate and at the same time hold an enquiring mind’.

In part this may be a reflection of the different size/complexity of the organizations and yet it also reflects organizational culture. For me, the essence of passion is an enquiring mind – that magnetic attraction to something that makes you wish to explore all of its streets and alleyways and to see your change in understanding emerge from that deeper level of engagement with that which fires you. Sure, donors may have an agenda as Peter Laugharn and Belinda Duff state … but how open is that agenda to learning from elsewhere?

AK The comment about it being hard to be passionate and at the same time hold an enquiring mind struck me too. It seems to me that being passionate without holding an enquiring mind might well be the basis of fundamentalism – which puts me in mind of Jung’s statement that ‘fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt’. Certainly conviction on values makes it hard to hear the discordant, but this very struggle is surely what we- as development people – bring to stagnant situations. If we cannot do this, as part of our ongoing practice anyway, then we are in danger of closing social spaces down rather than opening them up!

Setting the agenda

JH Most contributors talk about where learning is drawn from in setting the agenda. At root, we need to explore how donors manage the relationship and (potential) tension between their social vision and that of their grantees and beneficiaries. Here there appear to be donors who ‘work with grantees in a learning community’ (Andrés Thompson), which resonates with how Greg Erasmus describes Scat, contrasting with those who feel they hold responsibility for ‘the theory of change’ (Luc Tayart).

From a grantee perspective, Lizzie Zobel comments, it is clear that donors (particularly corporates) ‘want ownership … and not what everybody else is doing’. They are concerned with ‘the most innovative and creative’, without recognizing that innovation and creativity occur within and through process and not just by looking for something different.

Relationship between donor and grantee is central to learning. As many donors are quite removed from ‘the field’, it is more problematic to create relationships based on trust and connection. And where there is strong and direct field contact, the connections between ‘field and centre’ tend to be quite fragile.

AK This last comment of yours is very much part of the problematic terrain around learning. My own experience of consulting to larger organizations bears this out. There is a gap between those who work in the field and are learning all the time (because they’re constantly and immediately faced with the reality) and those who gravitate towards the centre and the heights, who are generally in positions far removed from the field and yet in positions which hold so much more power (and ironically, therefore, have so much more to lose, so much to defend and hold on to).

Connection to context

JH And yet several contributors talk about the need for learning to be sited within, and drawn from a good reading of, context. This is beautifully captured in Lizzie Zobel’s example of the book donor in the Philippines who had never questioned what happened to the books until they ‘realized that if there’s no reading readiness, you’re just donating paper’. Again, this places a significant weight on who donors are learning from – particularly the extent to which their grantees have good relationships and symbiotic learning with ‘beneficiaries’. As Peter Laugharn writes, ‘Unless our organizations learn and apply learning we will only be charities.’

AK And the word ‘charity’ implies one-way traffic and a particular power relationship. Engagement with context, however, asks more of donors.

The obsession with doing

JH And it is here that the obsession with doing, with activity, pushes learning off agendas – which is deeply paradoxical. Without learning, organizations are relying on assumptions about their practice and those they relate to. This raises the issue of the extent to which donors create organizational cultures that encourage the questioning of assumptions. For example, Greg Erasmus talks of how working with municipalities changed their understanding of local government just as Lizzie Zobel talks about needing to become ‘listening partners’ with the Department of Education. In her case, that appears to arise from ‘a self-questioning’ culture that looks at ‘our methods, our limitations and our results’.

And yet, as Naa-aku Acquaye Baddoo asks, how do large complex organizations build cultures of generative learning – ‘with 900 advisers and 150 managers over 31 countries and 4 continents. Trust and openness in relationships takes time to develop and cannot easily be replicated on a large scale.’ For me this depends on how donors create an appropriate balance between providing field staff with discretion to learn and accounting for performance.

AK In the end, the point for me here is that it all comes down to individual (therefore human) attitude rather than mechanisms. Or, putting this differently, that it depends on culture (organizational and individual) rather than procedure. Or, putting it still differently, we have to – and we can – inculcate a learning attitude, rather than depend on a time-bound ‘event’. Learning requires ‘immersion in thinking’ rather than an instrument or system. And we can do this in our organizations – but then learning becomes an end (perhaps one among others) rather than simply a means.

JH So where does this leave us? Phil Buchanan writes ‘it is not possible to calculate overall foundation impact or social return on investment or whatever we choose to call it’. Perhaps too much effort goes into making more and more robust measurement tools rather than enabling organizations to work with perpetual uncertainty and surfacing ongoing learning?


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