Learning in Brunnen – Some Reflections from the Seminar of Coordinators

August 29, 2012 | LND | SDC Experiences |


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Manuel FluryManuel Flury reflects the Seminar of the Coordinators from a learning perspective and comes to the conclusion that the Seminar was not a learning event and had no learning agenda; nevertheless important learning happened as the most important side event.

Brunnen is a small town situated at the lake of Lucerne, across the famous Rütli meadow where more than 700 years ago the foundation stone of the Swiss Confederation was laid. This is the place where the Swiss Directors of Cooperation residing in the many capitals of the Global South met mid August. “Fit for 2013 – 2016″ was the motto. The new Swiss strategy for international cooperation needs to be implemented by well-trained professionals. Being aware of the current international agenda, exchanging experiences among peers and getting most up-to-date information from the Management were expected. I looked forward to meeting colleagues and to get a sense of the atmosphere in SDC one year after I left Switzerland. How does all this link to learning? In the famous nutshell: Brunnen was not a learning event per se, but learning happened, definitely on individual levels but as well as an organization.

A key moment

The Seminar of Coordinators constitutes a key moment in SDC’s life, every second year. There is no standard agenda, with the only exception of the excursion. The agenda of the Seminar is usually the result of negotiations between the many stakeholders within SDC. The organizers want to “let the field talk”. In the same time, the Management would use this moment to pass important messages to the same field. The Seminar offers the opportunity Kurt Kunzfor Head Office collaborators to address the field-level decision makers on the many technical, methodological or administrative issues. At the same time the participants are eager to meet with their peers and to exchange on the way they deal with the multiplicity of important considerations and obligations from Head Office. This year, the Post Busan and Post Rio+20 agenda or the way SDC operates in fragile contexts with Conflict Sensitive Programme Management. To “render the field fit” for the coming four year financial period was key to the management. To link up, to get assurances, to search clarity were some of the expectations the people from the field brought to Brunnen.

Space for learning

Learning was not at the core of the seminar, there was no learning agenda proposed all participants would agree on. The Seminar, however, provided a lot of space for learning, for sharing visions and perspectives, for understanding how “others interpret reality that surrounds them” and for continuously “developing shared belief systems” as the knowledge management terminology would name it. The facilitators invited the participants to reflect on input statements and messages and to compile a good or a better practice based Learning@SECOORon particular experiences and case studies. Policy statements from the management were offered for comments and brainstorming exercises served to sketch out issues such as the future design of SDC’s job rotation system. There was only one moment when learning faded out and compliance became the principle: The management of the Federal Department informed the participants about the future line of command for field offices. There was no room offered for reflection, the masters told what the point is. At that moment, the facilitation failed. The two speakers stood around a table that would normally invite for debate. Instead, a speaker’s desk, positioned in the centre front and slightly elevated would have been more adequate for the kind of message passed. No debate was foreseen.

Learning agenda

We know it: learning implies an agenda to which participants buy in. Learning within an organization provides for reflection, promotes listening to other perspectives and agreeing on the necessary changes. Or: a learning organization “incorporates experiences and new insights in organizational skills, procedures and cultures”. We agree: not all is learning. However, as well the Seminar in Brunnen needs to be assessed in the perspective of an organization that cares about clarifying its fields of competence and on what it wants to change and to improve. Brunnen as all previous similar Seminars tried to achieve many things at the same time, resulting in ambiguities such as the ones mentioned. It might be a Anne-Claude Cavin_6feature of such meetings that the unambiguous agenda happens during informal moments, during joggings and swimming early in the morning, choosing the right seat in the meeting hall or during a last drink before turning in to one’s own room late at night. Learning happens as a – most important – side event. 

Learning was not at the core of the Seminar of Coordinators in Brunnen. However, it happened, individually, in the many forms we know. Organizational learning requires both an environment and an agenda. The Seminar provided the environment, thanks to the organizers and facilitators. But it lacked the learning agenda. Learning as a side event is already a good practice, learning as a standard practice in the main agenda is what we need to strive for.


Comments to“Learning in Brunnen – Some Reflections from the Seminar of Coordinators”

  1. Ernst Bolliger says:

    As a non-participant but observer of the Seminar of Coordinators I wonder about the absence of any reaction on Manuel’s contribution. Was there really no (official) learning agenda for this meeting, maybe hidden in the objectives? Why does leading staff meet, if there is no learning agenda? I would be curious and interested to hear some voices of participants and some of the organizers.
    Best regards. Ernst Bolliger


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