Woman thinking

Learning is the neurotransmitter running through Catalyst’s central nervous system. It drives and directs our decisions and evolutionary purpose. How might we help it to flow more consistently, while allowing space for spontaneous synaptic sparks of insight?

Learning happens formally and informally across a network like Catalyst’s.

Informal learning happens when people pay attention to what happens, reflect on it and talk about it with others. Networks are good for this because they are relational places. When we relate and interact with one another in this setting we get exposed to different information and diverse views. Learning builds in unexpected ways.

But what about formal learning? How do you create the processes, structures and pathways in a network so that learning gets captured consistently and in ways that help everyone learn?

How might we?

We don’t have the answers yet at Catalyst, but we do have ‘How might we…?’ statements. ‘How might we…?’ statements are a design tool, useful for framing a design challenge after understanding the problem to be solved. 

These statements don’t suggest a solution. They frame the question in an open way that invites ideas and innovation. 

We currently have six ‘How might we..?’ statements…

1. How might we develop a culture where questions are valued as much as answers?

We need to give generous amounts of time to each other to think about the questions, even after we’ve started hunting for answers.

In the search for what works it’s easy to value only the answers. But what if the questions we ask, and the processes we use for exploring them, are just as valuable? 

They could be valuable because:

  • Working out good questions makes us think about our work and reflect on what we are trying to achieve. It actually helps us focus on our goals.
  • The process of searching for answers holds its own rewards. It’s the journey, not the end! (Gandalf gif)

Also, if you ask the wrong questions you’ll get the wrong answers. They won’t be what you need and they may even distract you from your goals. 

2. How might we democratise learning?

We need to find ways for anyone who cares to have a say in what should be measured and evaluated.

In traditional organisations those in positional power would decide what needs to be learnt and what should be measured. However networks distribute power and leadership more than traditional organisations. This makes them great places for bringing a democratic approach to deciding what needs learning and measuring.

They also bring a challenge. People in a network will have different levels of comfort with thinking and behaving as a network. Some will behave as if we were in an organisation with traditional power structures. 

So how do we swap the story of what we are used to for a new one? A story based on a radical and disruptive practice in how we decide what we need to learn? And what might the waypoints, routines and rituals of this story look like in a network instead of an organisation?

3. How might we create enough consistency in measurement practices?

We need to be consistent in how we measure things, but without being excessively uniform.

Formalising necessarily involves creating some consistency. It could be consistency in impact measurement, or just consistency in how we decide what will be measured. It leads to consistent data quality. This makes it easier to compare data and make decisions.

But how much consistency do we need? How much is just enough? How will we know what is enough? Too much can lead to excessive uniformity, and make us blind to the unexpected or any learning or outcomes that fall outside what we are measuring.

And what about the diversity of good measurement approaches already present across the network? How might we create consistency in our collective understanding of what makes good practice, while supporting this diversity?

4. How might we create the minimum documentation necessary?

We need to document what we learn, but without documenting for the sake of it.

Documenting our learning makes it possible to share it with others. Good documentation makes it easier to create good content that others can consume. When they consume it the learning passes on to them. They have learnt some of what we learnt.

But as we pursue this goal it is easy to document more than we need to. Sometimes this is necessary to help us work out what is important. But it can also become a habit. A default to resort to when we aren’t sure. This is unhelpful. It dilutes the important things, stunting our focus. We can end up lost in the fog. 

So we must ask ourselves, what is the minimum documentation necessary to ensure that learning can be shared and retained by others?

Agile methods favour less documentation. Academic methods often favour more documentation. Where is the balance?

5. How might we share learning in ways that help people take action?

We need to take care with how we turn documentation into content. 

Learning is only useful when it's turned into content that helps people reflect and take action. 

People include:

  • those at the core of Catalyst, accountable for integrating learning on a daily basis
  • those across the network - including regular contributors and those new to the party who could benefit from its learning. 

Content formats include:

  • Written (papers, articles, blogs, slide decks, speeches)
  • Visual (charts, images, infographics)
  • Audio (spoken live or recorded)
  • Video (blend of written, visual and audio, live and recorded)

These types of content can be shared for people to consume in their own time or live, through events.

Networks make it easy to share content like this. But this can also lead to a lot of content flying around all the time. So we need to ask who in the network are we making this content for? How can we make it easy for people to decide if the content is relevant to them? Where in the network should we share it, and when? 

And once they’ve found it (or it has found its people) what do they need to access it? How is it easy to understand? How does it help them imagine applying that learning in their world? How does it empower them?

Catalyst is not the first network to face this challenge, and there are lots of good solutions, but it is still a challenge.

A final question on rituals and ceremonies

If we make the assumption that rituals - moments and formats where we intentionally practice something at regular, predictable times - are needed to implement formal approaches to learning, what are those rituals? How do they help us explore the other questions?

Catalyst’s next steps

It may not be possible to find answers that stick. Our answers might always feel imperfect.  That's OK. We can still build a framework and a roadmap to help us ask the right questions. We’re working with Tom Keyte and his team at inFocus to do this. Right now we’re creating a roadmap for formalising learning and Tom is helping to build the core team’s monitoring and evaluation skills. 

We’ll write more about what we’re learning and the questions we’re asking over the next six weeks on this blog.

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale