Orange Compass, funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, have developed a scoping paper ‘Building a Culture of Learning at Scale: Learning Networks for Systems Change’. The paper provides some clear guidelines and practical advice for enabling learning across scales and boundaries – from the individual to system-wide.
Whilst learning is often examined within organisations with the aim of encouraging organisational growth and innovation, there are few studies into inter-organisational cultures of learning. This is big gap given that systems change requires collaboration and innovation across traditional siloes of organisation and expertise. The effectiveness of cross-boundary collaboration has never been clearer than during the covid-19 pandemic, which has seen many civil society organisations come together to collectively respond, support and advocate for citizen access to critical supports. At this moment of deep collaboration, it is fitting that Orange Compass has been exploring the ways in which civil society organisations can better work together through the building of ‘cultures of learning’ at the system-wide scale. Supported by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the result is a scoping paper, Building A Culture of Learning at Scale: Learning Networks for Systems Change, which provides key insights and a proposes framework for further discussion.
Working alongside other civil society actors in a network is often fraught with difficulties. For example, organisations may not share the same ideas about how change happens, they may have different styles of working, they may only want to collaborate on a specific project, and they may interpret the moment differently.
One of the instrumental things identified by many of the organisations we have talked to as part of the Strengthening Australian Civil Society project has been the need for effective networks that push power towards change. Yet a major barrier which participants have identified, is the ability to learn within those networks.
So, what does it take to build and embed a culture of learning at scale? And what role can new and existing networks play in building the capacity and resilience for systems change?
The Building A Culture of Learning at Scale: Learning Networks or Systems Change scoping paper makes some key suggestions of the conditions under which learning and growth is likely to flourish within a network. These enabling conditions are broken down into four categories: Mindsets, Relationships, Processes and, Structures.
- Take a decentralised approach: networks need to challenge traditional hierarchical approaches to knowledge that create exclusive learning processes predicated on the control of knowledge management and distribution. This will lead to greater flexibility, participation, collaboration, connection, and accountability.
- Foster a structure for emergence: networks should be creating spaces for people with diverse experiences to be able to bring their perspectives and expertise to the table. This means creating governance mechanisms to address tensions and encourage relational self-organisation.
- Let go of certainty: Learning can be an uncomfortable process with the prerequisite for learning being that you must be willing to unlearn. By letting go of certainty around the knowledge held, networks can reframe learning as a strength rather than a threat to the network.
- Build trusted relationships: relationships require mutual respect, trust, common values, and recognised competency of partners. Knowledge is understood within a network as the natural end-product of social interactions and interpersonal relationships.
- Install “boundary spanners”: boundary spanners are people specifically equipped to cross knowledge and organisational boundaries and to nurture the flow of information both inside the network and amongst the network and the wider world.
- Co-develop a learning strategy: agree to co-develop an emergent learning strategy that can guide the group to ensure resources and capabilities align with the learning agenda of the network.
- Undertake collective sensemaking: knowledge that is uncovered through the network needs to be collectively made sense of and used to guide future possibilities. Sensemaking processes should actively seek different perspectives to ensure new ways of thinking.
- Encourage experimental action: networks are brilliant locations to try out new and experimental ideas that allow you to test your assumptions, explore alternative hypotheses, analyse data from a wider source and, access feedback from a range of places. By continuously committing to experimental actions, your network will be able to engage in an iterative learning cycle that seeks to thoroughly understand and impact its environment.
- Incorporate critical reflection: learning requires constant reflection. Ensuring that your network creates space for critical reflection allows participants to dive into everyday interactions and think about how they can alter their behaviour to alter the result.
- Build a collective memory: networks need to be able to hold and access knowledge that is generated. You need to make sure your network is storing knowledge in an accessible way that will allow people to access it as they need.
- Create a simple evaluation framework: the degree of learning and adaptation needs to be measured by the network regularly, not just ‘outcomes’. This framework should create feedback the network can use to improve its learning.
The Building A Culture of Learning at Scale: Learning Networks or Systems Change scoping paper presents unique research into a clearly underexamined topic and will provide networks with direction when trying to engage in and implement learning processes. The scoping paper is available now. This is an important development for the field and feedback and further discussion is encouraged.