How do you ensure that “good learning doesn’t gather dust on the shelf?”

Guest Post by Joe Dickman, Mercy Corps Deputy Director of DM&E, and Mike Culligan, LINGOs Director of Content and Impact

For years, international organizations have documented lessons learned and best practices through the publication of evaluations, technical papers and guidelines.  These documents are filled with valuable knowledge that has been learned “in the trenches.”  Too often, however, the lessons from these documents are not learned.  Why?  For a number of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • People might not know the documents exist
  • Documents might be  in an unfriendly format (long, technical, complex)
  • Time is always short and there are dozens of competing priorities!

Mercy Corps has addressed this challenge through a technology assisted approach.  The organization’s DM&E team regularly schedules and facilitates  DM&E Global Learning Exchanges.  These consist of live webinar sessions    (using the Blackboard Collaborate platform provided through LINGOs membership) to discuss recent evaluation documents that have been published by the agency. 

M&E staff from around the world present on topics of interest, focusing on effective or innovative tools, methods and experiences.  The DM&E team organizes topics, potential field presenters, promotion of the event and session facilitation.  The first session in December 2009 witnessed over 70 staff from 20 countries logging on simultaneously to hear presentations on M&E data management solutions from CAR, Somalia, Kosovo and Pakistan.  Over 900 individual chat messages were exchanged in the two-hour session, as members connected socially and professionally.

These events have changed the way knowledge related to evaluations is shared at Mercy Corps.  The monthly conversations are lively and social.  Over time, colleagues who previously might not have ever had the chance to develop personal relationships, now feel comfortable reaching out to each other with questions and requests for support.  Most importantly, learning is no longer gathering dust on the shelf.  Evaluations are shared and read before each event and discussed/debated during the monthly events.

 “Without on-line training and sharing, I don’t think we could have implemented Mission Metrics,” notes Sanju Joshi of Mercy Corps Nepal.  

Analysis of learning

The following are a few key takeaways based on Mercy Corps’ experience in the above efforts: 

  1. Live events with an element of engaging social interaction are critical for bringing learning to life. 
  2. Resonance and internalization of key best practice messages can be greatly enhanced when shared within a field expert-to-field expert approach.
  3. Initial mobilization of a community of practice is effective when stimulated by a shared project or agenda that immediately adds value, in our case the DM&E-in-a-Box toolkit and, later, choosing topics for webinars that were of high interest yet difficult to implement effectively. 
  4. Online collaboration alone is not sufficient:  in-person relationship-building and learning exchange in the form of workshops, conferences, TDYs and cross-visits are important supporting elements. 
  5. Fostering a sense of member ownership and leadership of activities can help ensure sustainability, relevance and rhythm of community of practice activities. 
  6. Use of an asynchronous  discussion/webspace (Clearspace) alone as a tool for communication and sharing is unlikely to generate sustained energy for a community of practice.  Rather, it is a useful and effective tool when combined with other more fluid forums for communication and learning such as webinars and in-person events. 
  7. Developing and maintaining an active community of practice takes significant sustained effort, but is worth the investment.  Basic training in online facilitation skills is very helpful. 

 The ‘Together We Learn’ Global Learning and Collaboration in the DM&E Community of Practice Program described in this post was selected as one of the top five innovations in Mercy Corps – stay tuned for final competition results.





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