If you only read one thing this week…

Are NGOs too busy to learn? by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
March 1, 2007, 3:08 am
Filed under: Articles, If you only have 15 mins, organizational learning

Intrac (a non-profit aiming to increase civil society performance) recently published a Praxis Paper entitled, “We’re Too Much in ‘To Do’ Mode“. The action research study looked at 45 Dutch NGOs to understand how they learn and where the obstacles and challenges lie. It also outlines the connection between individual learning and organizational learning. Read more about the enabling and competing factors for learning…

I found the most interesting section (quoted below) the factors that the researcher found to enable or complicate learning. Most disturbing for me was the fact that M&E were hardly ever mentioned as an enabling factor. If this is the case then we have some very real discrepancies between what we say the purpose of M&E is and how we use it. Some of the others seemed pertinent to our organization, others maybe less so but it was definitely thought provoking. The document is long although easy to skim. But if you have time definitely read the section below and then maybe the conclusions that appear on page 26.

Enabling and Complicating Factors for Learning.

When discussing enabling and obstructing factors for learning, most members were able to give a long list of factors they deemed important. Several factors were salient.
Lack of time was the factor most mentioned as obstructing learning. Respondents observed that making room for reflection is difficult when day-to-day processes are pressing — ‘developing the model is an extra task, so you have to create time that you would normally use for your primary processes’.
Field experience appears to be crucial in gaining new experiences from which to learn, either through communication between head offices and field staff/partners or through field visits. A condition for learning from field experience is time and trust in each other — ‘you gradually learn more as you get to know and trust each other more’. The physical distance from the field complicated this, partly because of difficulties in communication.
The isolation of project staff was also seen as an obstructing factor for learning, giving some the impression that they are working on their own island, with little opportunity for exchanging and sharing learning.
New staff entering the organisation was mentioned most often as a factor promoting learning, as it brings in new expertise and a fresh, critical view. However, in some cases it can obstruct learning when new staff are too keen to make their mark on an ongoing learning process.
Funding was a factor relevant for learning, both positive and negative. Some felt that a lack of institutional funding ensured a dynamic vibe, while others felt that institutional funding created more room for reflection. Having unrestricted funds can enable an organisation to stick to its own goals, and potentially leaves more room for experiment and innovation, but can also mean there is no necessity to monitor and evaluate.
Monitoring and evaluation were hardly mentioned as an enabling factor for learning. Although, in theory, monitoring and evaluation are coupled with learning, when looking at concrete learning experiences, they are regarded as being of little importance.”

Praxis Paper 16: We’re Too Much in ‘To Do’ Mode (2007)


1 Comment so far
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I agree, there is no substitute for field experience, however it does have the unfortunate habit of making you busy to a breaking point. For instance one might think that broadband internet and email 24 hours a day in the middle of nowhere is a dream come true, but when someone works for 12 hours and has 50 emails in their inbox there’s another 3 -4 hours of work. From here very little thought, if any, is given to matters of reflection and self improvement, thought process is eat -> shower -> sleep for 6 hours

I’m not saying this is a good thing, just a current reality that probably needs to be improved upon. 🙂

Comment by Aaron in South Sudan

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