In the past few months, I have heard many practitioners in the social sector discussing how continuous learning is integral for successful collective impact (CI) efforts. Although its importance is understood, practitioners say they are struggling with how to implement continuous learning processes effectively.
One major factor obstructing the implementation of continuous learning is that most of the conversations in the field still focus on its importance in broad terms, while lacking a concrete description of its elements and its practice. As a result, while leaders are convinced of the importance of continuous learning, more could be done to help practitioners integrate learning into their CI effort.
In this blog, I’ll address this disconnect by sharing a framework to think about how to integrate continuous learning into CI efforts – this framework is based on my experience, and builds off of the work of many experts and practitioners in the field.
What do we mean when we talk about continuous learning?
The idea that organizations should learn and adapt quickly to changes is not new. For many years, thought-leaders and experts have been arguing that if organizations want to be effective at tackling complex problems, they need intentional learning mechanisms. These processes help them better respond to contextual and internal changes by being nimble, flexible, and responsive in timely and meaningful ways.
In the 1990’s, Peter M. Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, highlighted the need for organizations to be “learning organizations”. More recently, influential thinkers in philanthropy such as Patricia Patrizi, Elizabeth Heid Thompson, Julia Coffman, and Tanya Beer have described learning as a strategy foundations should support as a means for adapting within complexity and uncertainty. At the same time, professionals in the CI field agree that ongoing learning is central to the success of CI efforts. For example, Brittany Ramos and Jeff Raderstrong from Living Cities talk about the use of community feedback loops in collective impact to improve a program or service. Paul Schmitz describes continuous learning as one of the core values of a collective impact culture, and Hallie Preskill describes collective impact as a problem-solving process where continuous learning is essential to its success.
Three Reinforcing Elements of Continuous Learning in CI
Based on the literature and my own professional experiences, I’d like to share what I think are three reinforcing elements that contribute to effective continuous learning:
Learning priorities that are co-created and agreed upon
Learning plans that determine the set of processes and activities required to create a continuous cycle of dialogue and reflection
- Learning culture that allows for openness, trust, and risk-taking
To illustrate these elements, it might be useful to think of a lighthouse. Imagine that the lantern sheds light onto topics of interest for the CI effort as it rotates on its axis (learning priorities). The tower elevates the light, the taller the tower, the greater the field of vision—as do the processes and activities for effective and efficient learning (learning plan). The foundation is a solid environment of trust and openness that grounds the work of the lighthouse (learning culture).
All three elements are essential for continuous learning; lacking even one limits the effectiveness of the process. A strong continuous learning agenda and infrastructure will not be effective if partners don’t trust each other, nor will a strong learning culture produce learning if there isn’t a clear understanding of what to focus on or sufficient resources to support learning.
To better understand why these elements are important let’s look in-depth at each of them.
1. Learning priorities
Effective continuous learning requires an explicit and agreed upon set of learning priorities. The learning priorities should be aligned with the common agenda and the focus of the CI effort in the next few years. In order to increase buy-in, it is important to engage different groups participating in the effort (e.g., leaders, community members, and practitioners) in setting priorities.
One way to develop learning priorities is to create a set of learning questions that represent what partners want to learn more about in the next couple of years. Backbone leaders or a third-party facilitator might be best equipped to engage partners in the co-creation of these priorities. Framing the priorities as questions helps partners focus on topics that they are curious about, or topics that will help them make better decisions. Priorities could fall into three areas:
Operation of the CI effort.
In what ways is the backbone supporting or hindering collaboration among partners?
How can we make our work groups more efficient?
- To what extent are leaders and influencers in the CI effort championing the work and bringing others stakeholders to the table?
Progress toward CI goals
To what extent and in what ways are we changing the culture in our school district towards better outcomes for students?
What has proven effective in engaging families in students’ education?
- To what extent are our steering committee and work groups making progress towards their goals?
Changes in the context that are affecting the CI effort
What are the effects of implementing common core standards in our district?
How are partners adapting to the new in-state tuition requirements?
- Is funding for college access and success increasing or decreasing in our city? Where are the changes coming from?
2. Learning plan
The learning plan should include a set of processes and activities to engage partners in meaningful dialogue, data interpretation, and insight generation around the learning priorities. The learning plan should include opportunities for learning in the current infrastructure of the CI effort (e.g., core group meetings, steering committee meetings, workgroup meetings) and new opportunities for learning and reflection.
The information CI efforts can use to reflect and learn should come from formal and informal data collection, for example:
Every day experiences from members of the CI effort. For example, reflecting on challenges in implementing a mentoring program or sharing effective practices for collaboration between higher education institutions and K-12.
Formal data collection efforts. For example, using data collected through the shared measurement system to discuss progress made to date or using findings from formal evaluations to highlight potential changes to the strategies laid out in the common agenda.
- Sensing from context and communities. For example, asking community leaders to talk about the potential implications of the work of the CI effort in a specific neighborhood, or using a published article as a starting point to discuss topics relevant to the work of the effort.
Integrating time for learning in current meetings sounds simple but requires intentionality and commitment from the backbone and the partner organizations. To create a learning plan, start by looking at the different meetings and gatherings the CI effort is already conducting and determine where it would be most appropriate to add-in time for reflection and learning. To do this, you might:
Allocate time for learning and reflection during core team meeting
Reserve the beginning of work group meetings to discuss what has worked well and what were the main challenges as partners start to collaborate and reduce duplication
- Invite community leaders to steering committee meetings to hear about the needs of the community and to what extent is the CI effort making progress toward its goals
You might need to add new learning activities to provide additional time for reflection on the learning priorities. For example, consider:
Convening partners for a retreat every six months or year to discuss what they have collectively learned about the learning priorities, talk about findings from evaluation reports, and discuss potential changes to their strategies
Offering monthly learning phone calls where partners can learn from experts in different topics
- Extending the regular core team meetings by 30-minutes every six months to reflect on data collected as part of the shared measurement system activities
Many CI efforts are resource constrained and that’s why it’s important to first utilize the current structure. It’s important to emphasize that continuous learning won’t be effective unless it is planned carefully and the necessary time and resources are provided.
3. Learning Culture
A strong learning culture is where the rubber meets the road. It allows partners to openly and effectively engage in meaningful dialogue and reflection, and challenge and test their assumptions so that new ideas and practices emerge and strategies can be refined.
Though there are many important ingredients for a strong learning culture, I’d like to highlight three that I think are especially relevant for CI efforts I’ve seen:
- Cultural norms that allow for openness, trust, and risk-taking
An environment where partners trust each other and are willing to be vulnerable and share what is going well and what might not be working so well in their work is crucial for effective continuous learning. However, building trust in a CI effort can be particularly challenging given that partners represent different organizations, have different interests, and come from different sectors.
The field of organizational learning suggests different ways to create cultural norms to help groups increase trust and openness. One option is to begin learning sessions by reminding participants that the objective of the meeting is to learn from each other, that all the information shared during the session will stay in the group, and that nothing will be made public without everyone’s authorization.
Another option is to create a list of agreements for conversations (e.g., we honor and respect each other as we are; we take risks together to advance the work, we agree to actively listen to others even if we disagree) that can help partners create common ground and keep everyone focused on healthy discussions and reflections. Practitioners can also spend some time discussing the difference between debate and dialogue with the group to ensure that everyone engages in productive conversations.
Many participants in CI efforts would agree that building trust takes time and it can only be fostered by developing clear rules for interaction and by allowing partners to engage in formal and informal settings where they can build relationships.
- Ability to get feedback and insight from community members
Collective impact efforts cannot address complex social problems effectively without integrating the voices, opinions, and priorities of local community members. In a strong learning culture, members of CI efforts need to have the cultural competency and understanding of systems of oppression to effectively engage with community members. Community members can provide insights on the needs of the community and the potential solutions. In can also help efforts determine whether or not they are making progress towards their goals.
There are different ways in which CI efforts are being intentional about gathering feedback and insight from community members. Some regularly invite community leaders or program participants to their meetings, while others are developing community feedback loops to create communication channels with communities. It’s important to keep in mind that gathering feedback from community members has to happen regularly and be a two way conversation where both the CI effort and the community listen and learn from each other.
- Supportive leadership that fosters learning, experimentation, and transparency
Backbone leaders and leaders in the different organizations represented in collective impact efforts can make a big difference in building a strong learning culture. The following are some suggestions for leaders looking to foster a learning culture in their CI effort:
Show genuine commitment to learning by using learning language in their day to day conversations. Saying things like “Let’s plan to have another meeting where we learn about this” can send a powerful message to the group that shows leadership’s commitment to continuous learning.
Embrace failure by sharing examples of when things didn’t go as planned, and what they learned from that experience.
- Show commitment to continuous learning by providing sufficient financial, personnel, and capacity-building resources for evaluation and continuous learning.
By modeling and supporting reflection and data use, leaders can set the tone and foster a learning culture in their organizations and among the CI partners.
The three components of continuous learning reinforce one another and together they create a virtuous circle of learning and strategic refinement in collective impact efforts. I believe that CI efforts will be more effective if they determine what they want to learn about, how and when they are going to learn, and develop a culture that fosters reflection and learning. There is still much to do to fully understand how to do continuous learning effectively but I hope this blog gives practitioners a place to start!
I’d love to hear your experiences with continuous learning – please share what has worked well or not as well for your CI effort in the comments section.