Learning Note 7: What’s all the buzz about learning in T&A?

Reflections from the TALearn workshop, Rio, 11-13 November, 2105

I spent 3 days in stunning Rio de Janeiro last week, among a terrific group of 70 people from at least 25 nationalities and quite varied backgrounds, all passionate about improving governance through transparency and accountability, and promoting learning. It was the third TALearn workshop, generously hosted by the Transparency & Accountability Initiative (TA/I).

A great cast of characters and a dynamic format meant there was enriching sharing of experiences. We papered the walls with insights, great questions, and useful examples. I learned quite a bit. And yet there are three areas which left me gasping for more, and to which TALearn could perhaps contribute significantly in the future.

First, organizational learning. As Alan Hudson pointed out in his post-Rio blog, the conversation on how organizations do better learning didn’t seem to make a lot of progress. There was a brief but tantalizing presentation by one of the research organizations present which actually did a systematic review of how practitioners learn and summarized the insights (paper forthcoming). The rest of the conversations were mostly very open-ended questions (“how do we ensure that we do adaptive learning?”), and a few interesting examples of how people have tried to put learning into their practice. It was almost as if we hadn’t done our homework: there is a rich field of organizational learning models and documented applications, with very practical reflections on what has been effective for different types of organizations. There is even a Society for Organizational Learning, started by Peter Senge, he of the Fifth Discipline – by now a classic in systems thinking for learning organizations. The society is based in North America, but has chapters elsewhere, including Brazil. We ought to be drawing from this wealth of thinking and experience, examining how the models and practices fit the T&A/governance work that we do, experimenting with them. Perhaps TALearn could be the hub which brings these closer, filters the most useful practices for the T&A filed, encourages their application, and promotes the lessons.

Second, making best use of structures and mechanisms that already exist in our organizations. There are entities (Google comes to mind) which prize innovation above all, and seem to epitomize the nature of a reflective and adaptive organization. Most of us in the T&A world are not working for Google. Most of us are in one of those organizations with the nimbleness of a hippopotamus, with pretty clearly set accountability lines, monitoring and evaluation systems, and management structures and practices. In Rio I heard quite a few times statements to the effect of “the boring monitoring is certainly not learning,” or “an organizational retreat is certainly not a learning innovation.” Except, they can be if you make them so – and they might be the best entry points to insert reflective practice. In fact, I really missed having the M&E crowd in Rio, because they are in charge of generating oodles of data for organizations, they have become indispensable (which organization is not going to do M&E?), and could become superb champions of methods and types of information and insight that are aligned with adaptive learning. Similarly for management structures, such as quarterly reviews and annual retreats: these are the moments when an organization already comes together to look back, plan forward; what better opportunity to inject more reflective methods. (I am not implying it’s easy to do; at Twaweza, we have aligned our entire strategy along a problem-driven approach, and are now grappling with turning this thinking into reflective practice.) In all this, I acknowledge that donor requirements are often not conducive to learning (see excellent report from TA/I on grantmaking practices and learning), but to be quite honest, I’d also like to see practitioner organizations take ownership of our learning. The M&E and management structures are a great entry point for this, and TALearn could foster a rich but very practical exchange on transforming rigid mechanisms into meaningful ones.

Third, the quest for next generation of evidence of effective T&A initiatives. Folks, we need serious evaluations of T&A / governance initiatives; serious as in conceptually well put together, with hypotheses and methods best suited to the problem being addressed and the initiative implemented (so please don’t read this as an endorsement of RCTs alone; the key is that the method should be best suited to the question). I asked the very knowledgeable research folks at the TALearn workshop what has come out since the 2011 Gaventa & McGee paper on assessing the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives, and Jonathan Fox’s paper on evidence of social accountability initiatives. The answer was… not much. At least not yet, though there were a few exciting examples of collaborative work between researchers and practitioners that will, eventually, generate new evidence. But we should be doing this en-masse, given the proliferation of T&A initiatives and projects. Also, there are research initiatives which are testing important hypotheses in this field but, because they are driven from the research angle, are not necessarily on the practitioner’s radar (here’s an example of just one). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that there are few models of researchers and practitioners collaborating in a way that feeds both the evaluation and learning need of the practitioner, and the high-standard methods need of the researchers. TALearn was created to bring together these groups (plus the donors); it could do so more purposefully.

In fact, this original premise of TALearn still holds much appeal for me, and I am very interested to follow how it will transform itself in the future. In one daydream, it would become a match-making exercise, where the most interesting practitioners and the most versatile researchers find each other and start to hammer out specific collaborations. For a bit of a kink, mix in the donors as well to be part of the tripartite match, ready to generously support cutting-edge collaboratives with a dual objective of contributing great evidence to the field as well as improving practice. Then again, perhaps I daydream too much.

For a few other reflections on TALearn: the focus on adaptation as the core indicator that learning is happening from Dave Algoso, the overall impressions from Brendan Halloran, particularly that “not all learning is created equal”; and Charlotte Ornermark’s reminder that it’s all about improving actual governance practice.

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