Henry Ford once observed, “Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This is as true for organizations as it is for people. Since we began researching and writing about the challenges nonprofits face to make the most of organizational learning, we have heard from hundreds of social sector leaders on why and how they are circulating knowledge to rejuvenate their organizations and their fields. In a series of focus groups with nonprofit practitioners1 and foundations, we found that participants were zeroing in on two questions:
- What knowledge is useful to capture?
- With whom will we share what we learn?
The matrix below, which came out of those focus groups, shows four goals that map to these dimensions: sparking good ideas (fostering a culture of learning); sharing good practices (greater impact, more effectively); collaborating (learning alongside other organizations); or influencing your field to multiply impact. At any given time an organization may be driving toward a number of these goals. Indeed, all organizations stand to benefit from internal knowledge, surfacing good ideas and sharing good practices. Some organizations also fulfill their missions by engaging with external audiences to collaborate across their fields or to advance learning as a whole.
Figure 1. Learning Goals for Increasing Impact
Regardless of your goals, the next question is how to proceed. Will technology be your indispensible partner from the get-go? Or do you need to lead with old-fashioned people-to-people interactions? In the end, technology is only a platform and knowledge is most memorable when transmitted from one person to another. We’ll look at effective blends of people and technology processes to achieve each of the four goals. While they all require a mix of approaches, two goals—idea generation and collaboration—lead with people, while technology often comes first to support good practices and external influence.
Good Ideas: Building a Culture of Ideas and Learning
Where do good ideas in an organization come from? Typically from individuals or small teams tackling ongoing or newly encountered challenges. This happens inevitably across all organizations at some points, but organizations focused on learning equip their members to recognize good ideas and surface them for others to adapt and apply. That is, these organizations create processes that build and shape a culture of ideas.
Jumpstart, which aims to develop the cognitive skills of preschoolers in low-income neighborhoods, puts a premium on learning from the experiences of its corps of 3,200 college students. The corps members bubble up approaches that work, then share them in weekly phone calls and meetings. While it uses technology to archive good ideas in an electronic reference binder—available across program sites in 14 states and the District of Columbia—Jumpstart’s leaders recognize that the best way to make new ideas stick is person-to-person interaction.
This interaction often takes the form of experiential learning. Consider how Meredith, an Emmanuel College student and Jumpstart corps member, uses role-playing in her debrief with other corps members after mentoring 3- and 4-year-olds. She holds up a picture book, “Do you know what this book is about?” “Crocodiles!” shouts a fellow volunteer. With Post-its on each page as prompts, Meredith demonstrates how she uses the book with her kids. “We have the corps members mirror their approaches back to each other,” says Paul Leech, Jumpstart’s COO. “And then the listeners go around and give the demonstrator one “pro” and one “con” of the approach, so all learn from each other.” For Jumpstart, this culture of generating and sharing ideas is fundamental.
Good Practice: Becoming More Effective
What if a really powerful idea emerged from that Jumpstart debrief, something that ought to be shared beyond that little circle of corps members in the room or those who join the weekly call? For any organization that cares about becoming more effective, the face-to-face interaction—whether it’s a meeting, a phone call, or a casual water cooler chat—shouldn’t be the only way it shares good practices. It leaves out team members who may need the very same information but who are working remotely, or spread across sites, states, or even different countries.
Sometimes a practice we want to share constitutes a breakthrough—something proven, such as a new way to engage communities in preventing disease. Much of the time, however, we gain efficiencies by sharing practices with a “smaller p”—ways to work smarter, to ensure that everyone related to a program is up to speed on measures and results, such that it’s clear where to invest time in what works.
The challenge is to implement user-friendly technology where all staff can post good ideas and practices, breakthrough or “small p,” and to build in incentives for people to make the platform—whether a relatively inexpensive off-the-shelf application for smaller organizations, or a customized intranet for larger—part of their daily routine. In the case of Jumpstart, in 2013, the organization plans to pilot a system called “My Jumpstart,” which aims to create an electronic forum for corps members to share ideas in real time.
Or consider ClimateWorks Foundation, a $165 million grantmaker that funds advocacy to address climate change. The organization puts its intranet in the service of addressing this challenge. Over a three-month period, all administrative and operational staff began sharing project updates on the intranet, allowing other team members to stay current with developments without resorting to one-on-one communications. In addition to the user-friendly design of the system (which staff helped to shape), several clear incentives emerged for using the intranet to post updates.
First, the intranet allowed the operations staff, traditionally an office-bound group, to have more freedom to work outside the office. Now they could telecommute on a rotating basis and still work together effectively using a virtual office. Moreover, staff in real time could share project updates with their managers, who are often out of the office, without requiring face-to-face meetings. The efficiency gains from this new process created the biggest incentive for people to use it, says Sarah Nichols, ClimateWorks’ director of knowledge management. “Within a few months, the operations and admin team reduced its e-mail traffic by 37 percent and, due to the system’s transparency of workflow, check-in meeting time had been halved.” Less time spent on internal communications meant more time for applying learning to the organization’s goals.
Collaboration: Learning Alongside Others
Once your organization has developed processes for collecting and sharing internal knowledge, it’s not a great leap to open up some of your organization’s ideas and insights to others who can learn alongside you and prod you further.
Here, personal interaction typically takes the front burner to convert field challenges into lines of inquiry and emerging answers.