Learning and the Art of Transformation

Guest post by Chris Proulx, CEO, LINGOs

Earlier this week, the LINGOs European team and I attended the BOND conference in London where over 900 members of the UK international NGO community gathered and networked. In the spirit of BOND’s new Futures and Innovation agenda, the conference focused heavily on the external and internal forces that are shaping the future of the international NGO. Many of the panels and speakers focused on a wide range of topics from agile humanitarian response to changing donor strategies to the impacts of climate change to role of youth-led social movements. The overarching question was what should be the future role of the international NGO. A few insights jumped out to me.

Where were the learning professionals? We had lots of rich conversations with heads of programs and fundraising, CEOs and COOs, and many technical leads. We enjoyed networking with our colleagues from partners such as the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, Inside NGO, Mango, the CHS Alliance, and the Cornerstone On Demand Foundation. However, there was a distinct absence of HR and Learning professionals from the NGOs at the conference. If any of the NGOs in the room are going to transform as they many hope they will, it will only happen because people are able to change what they do or how they do it.

Capabilities, culture, staffing and partnering models are all likely to change and they all will require innovative approaches from HR and Learning. In our busy, hectic, and cost-constrained worlds, we often retreat to networking within our professional circles. That’s great for sharing best practice but it is a huge missed opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas—which is exactly what is needed in high doses during dynamic or even turbulent times.  I am motivated to make sure we have speakers from diverse roles and perspectives at our Global Learning Forum, so here’s an early hint—invite a colleague from your programs team to join you in Seattle.

Partnership and collaboration, but how? Many speakers advocated for more collaboration: North-South, Public-Private, Local-International, Small-Big, Cross-Sector, and more. What was less clear is exactly how to do it. I was chatting with the CEO of a large corporate foundation later in the week who expressed her concern that INGOs are not particularly good at partnering. She went out to give examples of innovative ideas emerging at smaller NGOs that could benefit from the scale of a large INGO, but there are no proven models for how to identify, adapt, and scale those ideas.

One of the panel chairs at BOND, Gillian Caldwell of Global Witness outlined 10 principles of a good partnership, which included typical things such as shared vision, communication, trust, clear expectations—all things that are ample supply in many of our learning programs. But some less so—awareness of differentiated power dynamics, willing to subordinate your identity, and love! Here in our LINGOs community, we know how to partner—you have often come together to work on shared deliverables, and we know have access to resources that enable internal partnering. So, we have something to offer here. We could work together across organizational boundaries in real partnership to take many of the key competencies we embed in our learning programs to foster internal cohesion and team effectiveness and re-orient them outwardly as the competency model and training for effective organizational partnering. Are you up to the challenge?

The Art of Transformation. The opening speakers on Monday were Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Civicus, and Aya Chebbi, a blogger and social activist who was part of the Tunisian revolution is now leads the African Youth Movement. Together, they made a strong case for radical change within the international development community. Danny highlighted concerns about the big NGOs getting bigger, an eroding of trust in NGOs by the public as many have prioritized branding over advocacy, and he worried that donors now only see INGOs as implementers. Aya talked about the speed of new social movements, the urgency of youth and their need to be drivers of development not the objects of it, and need to create transnational solidarity across borders for civil society. At the end of his remarks, Danny lamented the conflict between the “science of delivery” and the “art of transformation.” This comment has stuck with me because so much organizational learning focuses on the “science of delivery” as we strive for competency maps, performance management, learning metrics all layered on top of courses designed to improve technical, managerial, or professional skills. All are important!

And yet, have we also lost sight of the fact that the most effective learning has an immense power to transform hearts, minds, careers, and lives? Where can we find opportunities to use our learning expertise to create experiences that re-inspire staff around mission, or connect donors and the public the “why” behind the organization’s work, or extends the reach of the organization’s core know-how to new partners and communities? By putting the science of learning to work on the art of transformation, you will be expanding the traditional scope of L&D—which will require more strategic partnering—and maybe, as Gillian Caldwell suggests—a little Love.
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