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December 8, 2018

Understanding Organizational Learning from the experience of development work

Written By Ishret Binte Wahid,Knowledge Management Coordinator, SHOUHARDO III, CARE Bangladesh

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As a knowledge manager, I always have struggled to find out ways to capture learning. Now, ‘learning’ seems to become one of the most popular ‘buzzwords’ in what we call the ‘development-world’! What’s learning actually? According Argrys and Schon’s (1996) organizational learning theory, ‘learning’ can be of three types – single loop learning, double loop learning and deuterolearning.

Single loop learning often entails a response to an unexpected result. For example, I can recall a development project that aimed to ensure better hygiene and sanitation for women and girls in communities. The project intervention included building demo latrines with bright bulbs in common areas so that more women and girls can access these. Few weeks later, the bulbs were found broken and toilets were barely used. The final evaluation marked the project as a ‘failure’. An interesting finding was revealed in the evaluation process which suggested that in ‘conservative’ communities like these women and girls preferred using latrines mostly after dark and in isolation. Now, the frontline staff in this project did not do a good job in learning about the context and the people who designed it never really engaged themselves into deeper conversations with the community.

A single loop learning in this case would be for the people who directly implemented the project to identify the reasons behind so many broken bulbs or unused latrines. The next step for them would be to set up new toilets in areas that are ‘private’ and therefore preferred by the targeted group.

Double loop learning on the other hand involves some significant adjustment in the theory-in-use. If some people sitting in a well-furnished room in a big city have been deciding that better hygiene and sanitation can only be ensured by building more toilets with lights in common areas, it’s high time to change this! Double loop learning here would require the implementers to communicate to the design/strategic team to correct the course of implementation or change the project design if requires in a way in which the intention will be fulfilled and the community will be benefitted. Finally, deuterolearning refers to the improvement of the learning system itself. The people in the design or strategic team were taught to think in a particular way. There are structural flaws that generated a utopian understanding or just the attitude of creating a ‘magic bullet’ that will solve every problem. Questioning the structure and the learning system continuously will lead to ways of improving deuterolearning. It is not merely about – ‘what to learn’ rather the focus is exclusively on ‘how to learn’.

My suggestion? Let us keep our minds open to new knowledge, changes and realities. In a competitive world like ours, we cannot risk getting lost in adamant beliefs and attitudes.

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