Learning is a must for SDC

March 09, 2011 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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Reto WieserReto Wieser is the Head of the Knowledge and Learning Processes Division of SDC. He talks about two basic ingredients for learning: Motivation for individual learning and incentives for organisational learning. Project Cycle Management, thematic competencies and the abilities to work in loose forms of collaboration with changing roles are the three fields of learning he would emphasise for SDC:


  • What is your own understanding of learning?

Learning is something which happens inside me, a rather complicated set of processes that go on automatically or consciously. I think of this rather as a kind of „black box“ and don’t need to know all details about it. However, what I can very well grasp or even measure is result of what happened, of learning: The third drafting of a credit proposal as per the new guidelines goes much easier as the first did and it takes less time to accomplish this task. Or, my computer skills have improved after refresher training, or in sports I play a better tennis and make less mistakes after taking up regular practice with a good player. These three examples are visible results of intricate internal processes which combine physical and intellectual skills, self-reflection, improvement by repeated practice etc.

Of course, some basic prerequisites need to be in place for learning. Among others, without a personal motivation, a basic curiosity and an attitude that I want to improve my performance learning will not take place. Partly, this intrinsic impulsion may be replaced by external incentives and/or pressure in an organisation. But I think that persons who really do not want to change anything at all have a kind of barrier and will not venture into learning – even if more or less forced by superiors.

If we look now at institutional learning we are in another dimension. Institutional learning is not the same as the individual but in my perception also not fundamentally different. Again, the result of institutional learning can be seen or even measured easily. In general terms: New and improved rules and regulations (efficiency), clarified roles and tasks within organisational unit or between units, better results (effectiveness, impacts) or better cooperation and relations with partners are effects of learning in the institution. The key word here also is change.

In institutional learning the parts of the process are even easier to grasp than in the individual. So, an institutional learning process is often explicitly designed: A task force or working group is established with an explicit mandate e.g. to capitalise existing experiences and practice and to draft new guidelines or update a policy. At least in theory this is the starting point of a learning process that is continued with the formal adoption of the proposal, the information to the staff and maybe a training to prepare the implementation. The measurement of the result, however, can be quite intricate and will always have a subjective element: The assessment of institutional learning will vary within the organisation. Therefore surveys are a proven method to measure change.

  • What makes the difference between individual and institutional learning?

The first point is hat there is no institutional learning without individual learning because it is always individuals who make a step forward and produce change within an institution. As a rule, the nucleus will be informal groups – e.g. communities of practice – or formal ones (task forces, working groups with a mandate). They develop a shared understanding or a new practice that is to be spread in the organisation. What for the individual learning motivation is, will be the incentive for organisational learning. In this point, I think, SDC does not do enough. We all still have a considerable room for developing own initiatives but incentives for learning, for sharing are not well enough rewarded. I just mention the active participation in and time allocation to thematic networks as an example.

Another big difference between individual and institutional learning is that the second one will take place (or not!) within a setup of existing power relations – formal and informal ones. This implies that organisational learning will not only depend on evidence and facts but as much on social aspects like gaining the ownership of important stakeholders. It corresponds to political economy aspects within the organisation.

  • What does learning mean for SDC?

For me, one thing is very clear – learning is a means to an end, not an end in itself. At the same time I believe that today’s context of development cooperation forces us to learn – e.g. from others – and to “unlearn” aspects of our strategies that prove to be no more effective. In this sense I advocate for change. This means we need to carefully reflect on what impacts we really want to achieve and as a consequence review our operational practice. As an organisation we need to develop more courage to change things that will lead to better operational outcomes more clearly spelled out impacts.

  • What implications does the rapidly changing context of development have on learning?

The rapidly changing development context requires us to adapt our instruments, our way of working. There is a considerable need to learn more and more rapidly from experiences of others. In more concrete terms, I think we have to venture into new forms of partnerships with different actors who know different things and have different practice. We need to put “partnership” into a new frame of cooperation and different division of tasks. Competencies need to be tapped where they are located – within SDC or outside that will be no more that important.

The need for change that I see is partly also a need to revive or get more serious about aspects that in the past have proven to be very effective. I think of the concept of partnership based on shared values, a consistent support to capacity development of partners. And in all direct interventions we should continue (or take up again?) a consistent support to empowerment.

  • What are areas, SDC should learn, from own experiences and/or from experiences and knowledge from others?

As the responsible for the Knowledge and Learning Processes Division the first point I want to make may sound strange: One of the core competencies of SDCs collaborators so far has been the knowledge and experience in PCM i.e. the Project Cycle Management. This knowledge and know-how on methods (for analysis as well as implementation) and processes is a foundation of our work. I feel that with the focus on new instruments of the ongoing reorganisation (2nd phase) we are loosing grounds on competencies. With the reorganisation organisation rules have partly changed. This means that the PCM has been adapted. As a consequence, the knowledge on PCM and know-how to implement need to be maintained and further developed. We need to take care that these competencies do not fall under the threshold.

My second point is on thematic competencies – state of the art concepts and implementation. I hear throughout SDC that with the reorganisation thematic competencies have lost ground dramatically and are no more available within SDC. I partly share this opinion – I agree that with the setting up of the networks thematic competencies have been spread within SDC and can no more be located easily. But I am not that pessimistic about SDC’s concept of learning through the thematic networks. There has been a considerable progress in the last year and  – referring to what I said above on before new forms of collaboration and partnerships: We don’t need to have all competencies within SDC, we need to be in the position to tap the required ones. The thematic networks can develop to a good “tool” in this respect.

This brings me to my third and last point: The competencies to work in loose forms of collaboration with changing roles from case to case. These are elements that could encompass learning objectives for SDC.


Comments to“Learning is a must for SDC”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Dear Reto,

    I find that many of the points you make resonate strongly with my own perspective….motivation, collaboration, community, are three words which stand out for me. I also like your linkage of individual and organisational learning: they are not the same thing, but they do depend on each other.

    These days I increasingly emphasize reflection in the learning process. I believe that taking the time for reflection, especially in small groups (e.g. of different people who work on the same project), to look back on how things have gone, to compare them with our original expectations, and to think of what this means for how we approach similar activity in the future, is a powerful way of promoting learning that is both relevant and applicable to our ongoing work.

    One of the biggest challenges in this context is building the necessary time for reflection into our work. It is not something we can squeeze into a few minutes, or that we can do in a big hurry. It requires us to calm our minds and to give ourselves the time to really think deeply about our work. It *does* take time, but I believe it is time well-spent.


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