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Opinion

What the theory tells us about how organisations like FCDO can learn

Published on 24 August 2021

Image of Joanna Howard
Joanna Howard

Research Fellow and Cluster Leader

The UK Aid sector has faced unprecedented challenges over the last 18 months due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, reduction in funding, and shake up of the politics and policy driving development.

Quality evidence and learning play a key role in enhancing development impact. But how is this knowledge applied? What support can organisations like the UK Government Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) provide to their staff to put their learning into practice?

This is the third blog in a series that examines how the FCDO and other donor organisations can successfully use evidence and learning to increase development impact, drawing on the experience of the IDS-led Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme (K4D).

Other blogs in this series:

Theories of organisational and individual learning are underpinned by the experiential learning cycle (developed by David Kolb), and pedagogical theories about what knowledge is, and how we acquire it.

To make the best decision about what action to take, the learning cycle suggests that we need to:

  1. reflect on what we know
  2. use analytical tools to make sense of this data
  3. plan for future action based on this sense-making
  4. take new action

The knowledge that we bring to our reflection (step 1) can come from our own experience and from other sources of knowledge (e.g. evaluations, research reports, evidence syntheses). Pedagogical theory suggests that when we make sense of this data (step 2) in dialogue with others, we have access to different experiences, perspectives and ‘know-how’ which help us to analyse our own situation or challenge from different angles, and plan (step 3) more effectively. This kind of reflection and dialogue is enabled when an organisation has learning spaces for its staff to come together.

Investing in spaces for knowledge and learning

Learning spaces are understood to be essential for an organisation to develop as well as to operate. An organisation such as FCDO can enable ‘internal public spheres’ in which staff can explore issues outside of their everyday roles, in order to increase the capacity and conditions for carrying out operations. Moreover, faced with increasingly complex programming and policy challenges, these organisations more than ever need to provide spaces for diverse perspectives, disciplines, departments and experiences to come together.

In summary, learning for good development practice needs to:

  • Draw on quality balanced evidence syntheses that show ‘what works’ regarding an issue or question and on the knowhow and practical knowledge of staff and partners (such as Communities of Practice).
  • Be linked to facilitated learning processes which enable staff to analyse evidence and generate new knowledge through dialogue, reflecting on others’ knowledge of what works and what does not, and considering what has worked in other contexts and programmes.
  • Take place during implementation as well as at the business planning stage, to enable learning to inform ongoing activities (i.e. adaptive management).

Investing both in learning spaces and knowledge management systems can bring together the tacit and explicit forms of knowledge held and commissioned by Her Majesties Government (HGM) in the UK, and provide architecture for operational and strategic learning. Through considering different perspectives we are able to understand more of the complex picture, and more likely to avoid bias.

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