Thinking about where to start, I am struck by one sentence in the opening piece by Allan Kaplan and Jenny Hyatt: ‘For some donors, learning appears to be outweighed by self belief.’ Here lies one of the first challenges a donor or donor-funded organization has to confront if it takes learning seriously. Most development organizations, be they donors or recipients, exist and survive because they can project self-belief.
They have to describe predetermined results against which they are funded and judged. To portray a sense of humility about their possible impact on complex social processes and a curiosity about which approaches may work, to openly pose questions about what may or may not be achieved, would guarantee immediate loss of funding unless they were a research institute. In any effort to become more ‘self-conscious’, ‘centred’ and open to its own ’emergence’, development/donor organizations swim against the powerful tide of a world view that demands plans, systems, clear indicators and quantifiable measurements that leave little room to discover what was not planned or to see processes as they emerge.
This tide operates internally as well as externally and SNV is not immune. This article will describe how we struggle (and swing) on the learning spectrum offered in the guest editors’ article and attempt to explore the reasons why we continue to try. I will start from our internal swings and steps and work outwards towards our relationships with clients and other development/donor organizations.
Before I consider how learning takes place within SNV, I would like to describe just three aspects of the struggle that one has to contend with when it comes to learning.
Difficulties in learning
Different understandings of what learning is
First, we understand learning differently. Views that lean towards the ‘self-conscious, centred, open to emergence’ end of the spectrum compete with those that tend more towards sharing information, best practices and training in the use of new models and tools.
It takes time to shift deeply rooted perspectives. We recently completed a blended action learning pilot that started with no content topics or fixed curriculum. Sixty participants working in 10 ‘learning sets’ had to learn to pose and refine questions about dilemmas or issues in their practice. They worked through to essential questions around which their behavioural change and self-awareness needs would be defined and addressed. This was a major mountain to climb. It was only in month six that the first participant announced: ‘I finally get what this programme means by learning – it totally depends on me and how I see the world…’ The same struggle took place among the ten coaches working with the learning sets. At the end of the 14-month pilot there were still differences in how the coaches defined learning and how this expressed itself in their approach to their learning sets.
Influence of project thinking
Second, as an organization, our project implementation roots leave deep marks and a few addictions even though we have changed our ‘spots’ and no longer design and implement field projects. Some of our key internal systems still reflect project thinking; our advisers are still largely technical experts who are learning to work in a more facilitative and reflective manner with their clients. We are a fast-acting organization with a love of planning. The pressure to show results (and rightly so) tends to be interpreted at the level of action and activity rather than effect. A view of ourselves as experts still informs our practice in spite of our genuine commitment to seeing clients as equal partners in a search for joint responses to particular development issues.
The expert view means that we do not have a natural questioning approach but rather one that starts with a hypothesis about the solution (usually proposed by us) and then plans on this basis. It also encourages us to see the issues we address as ‘apart’ from us, thereby closing off opportunities to negotiate meaning about these issues on an equal footing with clients and partners.
Given this inequality, our practice is less likely to lead to situations where generative learning (‘learning that enhances our capacity to create, rather than learning for reinforcement of expectation’) takes place in a dynamic and contextually responsive way. The space for serious reflection and self-conscious choice-making becomes limited. Clients do not assert the need for this either, because their own world view and experience lead them to accept us as experts. Where practitioners attempt to stimulate it, they find that it takes time that is often not seen as valuable. Designing learning processes (not necessarily programmes) that challenge and shift these patterns on both sides requires a combination of innovation, tenacity, a sense of timing and a good dash of serendipity.
Divergence and convergence
Thirdly, SNV has a unique capacity development practice: combining technical expertise in a particular sector or theme with organizational and inter-organizational change facilitation. This means that in a specific geographical area, SNV advisers work with a group of organizations (NGO, government, private) around specific development issues. The aim is to help key local organizations and networks to address the issues practically, while they also clarify their roles in relation to each other and individually develop the self-consciousness, agency and centredness needed to sustain their effective contribution to local development processes beyond interaction with SNV. In short, we expect our clients to become the sort of learning organization described in this article.
We discuss this definition of our practice endlessly. Since a new strategy marked a departure from our project past six years ago, there has been a pattern of divergence and convergence around the question of what the essence of our practice is. Every now and then, we stop and do what we call consolidation. In a divergence phase, there is a wonderful sense of freedom with lots of experiment and innovation in response to unique local situations.
In converging, we often miss an important step in collective learning (creating and negotiating new meaning by reflecting together on what is emerging from the divergence phase). We jump to listing boxes of similar-sounding words and giving umbrella labels to provide a sense of order. In this setting, it is difficult to clarify and name a ‘conscious’ framework.
It is easy to reflect and criticize like this but there are real design challenges: how do you design and maintain such a process over time with 900 advisers and 150 managers spread over 31 countries and 4 continents? I have come to accept that anyone interested in influencing the learning culture at SNV has to work with this duality all the time, sometimes even working within the ‘boxes’ in order to negotiate a way out of them.
These challenges form a backdrop to my views on where SNV stands in relation to the guest editors’ concept of a learning organization.
What is our conscious framework?
So what is the ‘conscious’ framework that guides our approach to practice and learning? To call such a framework ‘conscious’ at an organizational level, there needs to be a degree of collective understanding about what we mean, and such congruence between a philosophical framework and our practice and corporate choices does not yet exist at SNV.
However, there are interesting movements in this direction all the time. For example, there are at least ten different ‘virtual’ discussions involving practitioners in the field and policy-making staff on different aspects of our practice. These discussions are fairly free-flowing and often radical in nature and have the power to shape important choices at corporate level. For example, one of them is looking at the essence of our practice and what this means for practitioners (change paradigm, core elements, value choices in working with clients, dilemmas, implications for working with other donors, etc). Another is looking at the concept of leadership and agency in development processes and what this means for the way our practitioners work with local leaders.
Another internal movement is beginning to call for greater congruence between what we preach to our clients and local partners and the systems we work with internally. The degree to which we can claim to have a conscious framework that informs practice depends on the extent to which we are able to make these different movements connect to each other and come to some consensus about the basic paradigm (of change, learning, development) from which we work. In the absence of this I cannot describe a conscious framework but rather a number of different frameworks which take turns to occupy the centre of our thinking. This sounds chaotic but it isn’t really, because whole web management systems provide a sense of stability and prevent clashes between different frameworks or world views. We avoid the conflict that could lead to learning by believing in the objectivity of our management and measurement systems.
Who are we accountable to?
Are we willing to place learning from the field at the centre of the organization? Who are we accountable to? How does this affect our attitude to risk and failure? Is there space for generative learning at SNV?
This part is really difficult. In our relationship with organizations and networks in the field, the balance of power is heavily in our favour. We select our clients. They do not pay for our services and support. Most of the organizations and networks we work with cannot afford to pay for the services we provide. When we make proposals for funding to our main donor, the Dutch foreign ministry, there is no direct negotiation with our client constituency, although the proposals are on their behalf.
On the other hand, the demands made by our donors are influenced by their constituents, the Dutch tax-paying public. We make commitments in return for funding and these are translated into indicators that form the basis of monitoring and evaluation systems. These systems then drive the questions we ask about our practice and the information we gather. The stage is set for ‘learning for reinforcement of expectations’. The system demands that learning efforts are directed towards ‘best practice to meet our commitments’.
However, there is space for generative learning in SNV; it just doesn’t exist in the mainstream – not yet. Mistakes are allowed, advisers and teams do have room to try different things and abandon them if they do not work. But we do not work systematically with mistakes or failed experiments. None of the case studies we publish are about things that didn’t work. I have never heard about a meeting or workshop to reflect on something that didn’t work – internally or with clients. We do not yet have the confidence to openly embrace failure – but which development organization does?
The learning space in SNV
So what are the features of the ‘learning space’ in SNV? (By learning spaces I do not mean the regular training and learning programmes that exist to improve knowledge and competence of individuals and teams.) Learning is seen largely as an activity separate from daily practice and primarily involving an individual. I say largely because different views exist alongside this predominant one. This means that learning spaces tend to be set aside from the process and practice of our daily work. It is difficult to identify space for learning in our approach with clients, or in our internal meetings, reporting styles and formats, performance reviews and evaluations, yet different kinds of ‘separate spaces’ abound.
Again, this is not consistent throughout the organization. There are teams where learning spaces are fiercely protected and others where it is difficult to take even a few hours to reflect with colleagues, such is the pressure to act. One team in East Africa takes a whole week out every few months to look critically at their practice; team reflection days are becoming more institutionalized; in West Africa and Albania, two innovative leadership learning programmes involved SNV advisers jointly reflecting with local civil society and public sector leaders about the leadership dimensions of different development issues they faced. In the Balkan region they are piloting a learning process involving open dialogues around dilemmas or tensions in our practice.
In these examples, people learn with each other. They come to new meanings and insights jointly created by questioning and negotiating, and they adopt and work with these meanings (at least for a while). This is possible because there is trust and openness in their relationships with each other. It takes time to develop and cannot easily be replicated on a large scale.
Naa-aku Acquaye Baddoo is Senior Policy Adviser – HR Development & Learning at SNV. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
SNV is a Netherlands-based, international development organization that provides advisory services and capacity-building to nearly 1,800 local organizations in 26 developing countries to support their fight against poverty. The teams of national and international experts who work with these organizations combine thematic expertise with skills in organizational development, partnership building and institutional strengthening. Most of SNV’s funding comes from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.