Strategic learning, that is, using data and opportunities to learn and adapt strategies in response to changing environments or new information, may be more accessible than you realize. At its core, it includes four key things:
- Systematic data collection: Being thoughtful and purposeful about the data you collect and making sure the information directly relates to improving your strategies.
- Collective interpretation: Identifying who needs to be involved in interpreting the learning to improve the strategies and making sure they have time to be involved.
- Improving the Strategies: Using the information! Whatever else you do, make sure your learning makes a difference in your strategies.
- Research: Basing your learning process on research about your strategies and what they can achieve when possible. This can be one of the harder elements of this strategic learning approach, but you can work your way toward it with time, gradually integrating more and more research into your strategies and Strategic Roadmap.
For more information about the concept of Strategic Leaning, visit The Center for Evaluation Innovation. This site offers a wide range of strategic learning publications, including many case studies, and an overview of the Spark strategic learning approach: Creating the Space and Structure for Learning.
For many people, strategic learning is an idea or a phrase, perhaps something they want to pursue, but which is hard to define. For some people, it is part of what they do day-to-day, but they have a hard time saying what exactly it means. At Spark, we define strategic learning as a combination of three things:
- Systematic integration of information into strategies,
- Collective interpretation of new information, and
- Application of the interpretation to improve strategies.
We also believe that, at its best, strategic learning draws on:
- Research that articulates the relationship between the strategies and desired changes.
Ultimately, we believe strategic learning is something your organization can undertake to achieve meaningful improvements to your strategies and outcomes!
- Specific factors contributing to an organizational culture that supports strategic learning include:
- Allowing for failure and encouraging learning from failure;
- Having time for intentional planning of strategies upfront and ongoing attention to improving strategies;
- Being open to changing strategies, rather than having highly-defined strategies where it will be difficult to adapt along the way;
- Having an organizational commitment to effectiveness, even though it may result in some lost efficiencies;
- Having commitment from staff and, ideally, consistency in staff, as strategic learning is a competency few staff already have when they start; and
- Holding staff accountable to their outcomes, rather than their completion of tasks such as meetings, client engagements, reports, etc.
All of these help to create an environment that supports strategic learning, but rarely is any organization strong across all factors. It is helpful to assess the organizational culture to ask how to adapt strategic learning to your culture.
For example, in a culture where failure is not acceptable, it may be safer to focus strategic learning on scaling successful strategies or helping to apply them to new populations/settings. If you have task-focused culture instead of one that is outcome-focused, a few key tasks may be redefined to have well defined outcomes rather than trying to switch everything to and outcome focus.
In addition to organizational culture, strategic learning depends on a having “adaptive” competencies (necessary for engaging in the new way of doing your work) and “technical” competencies (concrete skills and techniques). Necessary competencies include:
- Leadership and access to adequate resources;
- Effective teams and team processes;
- In-depth knowledge of your strategies;
- Research skills; and
- Comfort with technology (computers!).
The competencies needed will help you think about who on your team should help with the strategic learning process. They might be internal to your organization, in your partner organizations, or available as a contracted service.
These types of knowledge and abilities may not exist fully in your organization. If they do not, there are a couple strategies to access the needed skills:
- Use existing staff with some of the skills and help them access training to build their capacities. Evaluation, survey design, theory of change, and other research trainings will be helpful.
- Outreach to a local college or university to request interns from Masters or Ph.D. level programs. Many public affairs, non-profit management, social work, education, and other graduate programs require Masters level students to complete a final project with a community group.
- Outreach to partner organizations or existing consultants working with your organization to identify where the skills might already be available in your network.
As a note, just because research expertise is needed to implement the model does not mean the researcher is in charge, or has more authority in the process than any other member of the Learning Team. The type of expertise a researcher provides is equally important as, but not more important than knowledge of the strategies, ability to facilitate a learning dialogue, and willingness to participate in collecting, summarizing, and interpreting the data.
Below are a set of key research competencies one or more of your Learning Team members or external partners should have:
- Ability to generate a research question that can be answered through data collection and analysis.
- Ability to assess advantages and disadvantages of various data collection and analysis tools.
- Ability to design a data collection tool that will generate high quality data.
- Ability to design a data analysis approach that will provide useful, summarized information from the raw data collected.
- Ability to discuss the limitations of research findings – what the findings do and do not tell you.
Rest assured, no organization is 100% ready for strategic learning across organizational culture and skills. You may find you have challenges, but you can tackle strategic learning even with barriers in your way. Having a hard time imagining how to get started? Try some of these to get your feet wet.
- Assemble only those people who are genuinely interested in strategic learning. Let them select one or two specific strategies to focus on at first.
- Implement only one new data collection tool, tied to one specific strategy and desired outcome.
- Start with a data collection approach that feels easy, accessible, and even like business as usual (e.g. meeting evaluations or debriefs). Design it more purposefully than you usually do, with careful attention to collecting information about outcomes you are trying to achieve, rather than information mostly about your process and people’s satisfaction with the strategy.
- Use information you are already collecting (perhaps for a funder or evaluator) that tells you about the implementation of your strategies. Collectively interpret the information and use it to improve your strategy.
- Use a recent evaluation report to identify findings that may help improve your strategies. Go through the process of collectively interpreting the information and identifying ways to improve the strategy.
- Select one or two easy ways of collecting information that will tell you if your strategy is going well. Don’t worry about collecting enough to understand why it is or is not working, that can happen when you discover there is a problem. (Similar to when a doctor collects your blood pressure, this “vital signs” approach relies on a quick bit of information that tells you if you need to know more).
Regardless of what small steps you start with, keep in mind how you might expand as your organization and staff become more and more ready to implement strategic learning.