Becoming Intentional About Learning
“You learn something new every day!” – it’s a phrase most of us use on a regular basis. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly learning. Learning – the process of acquiring knowledge or skills – is fundamental to our existence as human beings. Intentional learning – having goals and systems to direct how we collect knowledge and turn it into action – is fundamental to the existence and success of organizations.
In the financial inclusion sector, intentional learning enables organizations to achieve their core objectives: creating impact for customers, developing expertise in product or service provision to underserved markets, improving the efficiency of an intervention, and sharing knowledge externally to advance the sector.
Part of our mandate as learning partner to the Mastercard Foundation’s Rural and Agricultural Finance (RAF) portfolio, is to capture and share learnings on smallholder finance interventions. But a key challenge we faced was figuring out how to collect learnings from a diverse set of partners. So over the course of six months, we worked with Dalberg Design to design and pilot solutions that could help our partners build their internal learning capacity – and along the way help us to gather those learnings. These solutions, along with other tools and resources, are compiled in our Dynamic Learning Playbook.
In this blog, we share two organizational learning challenges we’ve observed from working with our partners on this initiative, and recommendations for how to address them.
Challenge #1: Establishing a learning culture from the beginning
In the set-up of any initiative, whether it be developing a new financial product or opening a new country office, day-to-day implementation matters take priority over learning. But as a product or initiative moves out of the start-up phase and more time frees up for learning, an organization may find that it’s missing the critical insights needed to inform its strategy. This is often because the systems and processes that support learning were not established from the beginning. It can be difficult to retrofit a system that prioritizes outreach targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) to be more intentional about learning. And it can be challenging to make that transition once a certain organizational culture has been established.
Working closely with implementing organizations such as Mercy Corps Agrifin Accelerate, AgDevCo Smallholder Development Unit and Root Capital, we’ve identified three tips to help address this challenge:
- Set up teams, systems, and processes for continuous learning from day one. Concretely, this means that leadership must intentionally dedicate time and resources to ensure that the appropriate learning systems and processes are set up at the same time that implementation activities start. It can be as straightforward as identifying a few simple ways to embed learning into everyday workflows, and integrating learning into key decision-making processes.
- Make learning everyone’s responsibility. In donor-funded initiatives, it’s often assumed that the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) team is exclusively responsible for learning. Setting aside a dedicated budget line for MEL can reinforce the perception that learning and implementation are separate from one another. While it’s important to have internal champions modeling good knowledge-sharing practices and driving continuous learning, it should be embedded within everyone’s roles. This means including specific knowledge-sharing tasks and responsibilities when drafting job descriptions and also incentivizing staff to actively contribute to the learning culture.
- Optimize field visits for learning. The richest learnings happen out in the field, while meeting with customers or partners, but systematically capturing them is hard. There are several ways to optimize these touchpoints for learning without creating additional work. CGAP’s Customer-Centric Guide features a number of simple tools to help financial service providers collect insights from existing interactions with customers, and our Dynamic Learning Playbook includes some complementary resources.
Challenge #2: The influence of funders and their priorities
While implementers have a central role in building out effective learning capabilities, funders’ processes can also heavily influence how learning happens among their partners. For example, funders often verify compliance and collect learnings from partners using the same reporting channel or tool. Systems that ask partners to report on progress against planned activities, outreach targets, and spending milestones should be kept entirely separate from processes that aim to collect insights and lessons learned. For implementers, the priority will always be on meeting compliance targets to ensure continued funding, rather than reflecting on a recent failure or challenge. And even when compliance and learning processes are separate, there may still be high degrees of variance in the quality of the insights being shared by partners.
To avoid this common pitfall, funders should:
- Customize the approach to learning according to each partner. By relying on standardized reporting processes, funders may be missing out on important insights simply because what counts as a “learning” to a technical assistance provider may not even register as such for a bank. It’s important to meet your partners where they are and agree on a common learning agenda. Be aware that some partners may require additional support to achieve this. Our Dynamic Learning Playbook was designed with this challenge in mind and the selected tools are adaptable to a diverse range of organizations.
- Embrace failures and learn from them. Accepting failure is a prerequisite for building a culture of learning within your own organization, but also with your partners and grantees. Organizations that foster a learning culture have staff that go beyond compliance and are interested in learning and applying what they have learned to improve overall performance. They need to feel safe to acknowledge when and where problems arise, and leverage what others might deem “failures” as valuable opportunities for learning.
Becoming more strategic about communicating what we’re learning
The challenges we face in the financial inclusion sector are complex, interconnected, and will not be solved without cooperation and coordination between diverse actors. This requires us to take a dynamic approach to designing financial inclusion interventions and policies, and to consolidate and share lessons – including our failures – with each other in ways that catalyze change.
By improving our capacity to turn insights into action, and sharing those lessons learned more intentionally, we’ll accelerate progress towards our shared goal of universal financial inclusion.