Adaptive Learning? Liberia Can Teach the World a Thing or Two!

In the summer of 2017, the Accountability Lab Liberia and iLab Liberia teams conducted a learning mapping to understand why and how Liberian organizations learn. We think adaptive learning is important in Liberia because development is a complex and dynamic process where interests, relationships and incentives can change rapidly. Adaptive learning techniques help us reflect on why we do what we do; they help us improve what we do; and, hopefully, they help us find politically-savvy ways to sustain positive change across the country.

Our learning mapping revealed the frameworks and the concepts of organizational learning are not yet well understood or used to guide strategic or programmatic practices in Liberia by either Liberian or international organizations. Many local organizations have poor goal-setting procedures, weak data collection systems, and low monitoring and evaluation capacity. Many international organizations are much better at collecting information but are often unable to integrate learning activities into grant-making and program implementation- they largely share learning internally with colleagues rather than externally with other organizations, and can have limited ability to adapt activities rapidly based on data collected.

At the same time, we also found that there was not a “learning community” in which staff responsible for these activities could themselves learn and share ideas. We recently organized, therefore, Liberia’s 1st Learning Conference with our partners at USAID LAVI to do three things. First, to share knowledge around the idea of organizational learning among those responsible for monitoring and evaluation, data collection and programmatic decision-making in Liberian organizations. Second, to share ideas around learning and learn from each other about how we can better collect data and use information to allow for adaptation and improvement in our work. Third, to build on the nascent learning community within Liberia, to develop out a network of engaged, connected learning advocates from across government and civil society. So what did we learn from the learning conference?! A few key take-aways. In Liberia, there are:

The beginnings of a shared definition of learning…Without a collective understanding of what learning means it is hard to think through how best to make it happen, both within and across organizations. At the conference we were encouraged by the areas of overlap we saw across organizations in terms of their understanding of learning. Almost all groups indicated that they understand learning not just as a process of collecting information but actually using that information to change. Collectively we defined adaptive learning in the Liberian context as the extent to which organizations engage in learning activities to capture, save and share lessons; and use this knowledge to adapt their activities.

…But common challenges to learning. Almost all the participants at the conference indicated that there are some key shared barriers to learning. For example, very few organizations actually collect the data they need in Liberia to provide the basis for learning. The incentives within organizations are also not aligned in a way that supports learning. The emphasis for local organizations tends to be data collection against pre-defined frameworks set by donors rather than in a flexible way that would allow for improvement. Finally, M&E and learning tends to be compartmentalized and allocated to 1 specific staff member rather than understand as a mindset that should infuse organizations from top to bottom.

…And some fantastic learning innovations.

The constraints to learning are real in Liberia but it was fantastic to hear about some of the ways that organizations are learning despite the challenges. For example, one learning organization has actually developed its own internal portal to document all successes and failures and synthesize information about each. Another creates short monthly summaries of successes, surprises, and disappointments from every employee. Another makes sure to conduct surveys in communities about their work only on Saturdays when people will be at home to respond, and in local languages that make sure feelings can be fully expressed. All of this takes more time and energy, but the learning that comes out of it is far more valuable as a result.

…With diverse forms of communication around learning. The group agreed that long, written reports are not the best way to build communities around learning. We need to move away from traditional approaches to dissemination and think through how to engage diverse audiences. Ideas that are actively being used in Liberia for this include: infographics, blogging, social media, learning calls, podcasts, “pause and reflect” moments, video interviews, whatsapp groups, fail faires, radio shows and in person learning exchanges, among others. There are plenty of ways we are already communicate learning- the key is to move beyond the tyranny of Microsoft Word!

…And with the recognition that learning is political. It is clear that there is a subset of civil society in Liberia that is actively engaged in learning. Although progress is nascent, there is interest in further knowledge and understanding and the energy for further collaboration. The group reflected that this energy is not always reflected within government, particularly given the recent political transition. This brought up larger issues about the political nature of learning- who gets to learn and why; the power dynamics behind it; and where political incentives lie to actually ensure that information is translated into learning. Too often we think about learning as a technical process, but in Liberia as in all contexts, it is political- and we must remember that.

More information about the event along with photos and videos are available on the iCampus Facebook page and Twitter account; and you can listen to a podcast of the “fireside chat” session of the event with Dr. Tanya Garnett from Liberia Strategic Analysis here.

By: Blair Glencorse

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