Networks as Learning Systems

Most networks have “learning” as an important activity, but I’ve seen no impressive examples of systemic network learning strategies. The International Land Coalition (ILC) has made a big step forward to develop just that, described as its Systematic Knowledge and Learning Approach (SKLA).

ILC logo

A couple of years ago ILC’s Annalisa Mauro and I were among authors of Inter-organizational learning: A new frontier. As the article’s title suggests, we didn’t find much although it was a good chance to create a framework. Many people, when thinking about such things, jump to technologies such as learning management systems. But what we were interested in is approaching the learning life of networks and their strategies from a systemic perspective. Annalisa, together with Jan Cherlet took on the challenge for ILC and its 152 intergovernmental and civil society organizations. They are working together to promote secure and equitable access to and control over land for poor women and men.

The SKLA follows several needs assessments. “We call it an approach and not a strategy, it’s meant to change mindset, not to provide a rigid framework,” explains Jan. “We’re at the closing of a 5-year strategic framework period and entering into a new 2016-2021 framework . The new approach will influence the operationalization of this new framework.” Core to the approach are five axes of systematization that arose from review of needs and historic work; each is associated with particular tools as the report explains:

1st axis: make effective knowledge connections across levels. Knowledge and skills need not only to be shared between members (horizontally), but also between global, regional and local levels (vertically). Related tools: cross-cluster/cross-level reviewing; database of good practices; online monitoring of knowledge demand; forums; publication series

2nd axis: take advantage of capacities in the network. Firstly, this requires the systematic mapping of knowledge resources and needs of members; secondly, understanding the information and knowledge they are willing to share; and thirdly, the skills they can put at the disposal of the coalition. Related tools: network book ‘Connecting the Dots’; horizontal mentoring through the ‘Talent Map’

3rd axis: orient knowledge and learning activities towards change. ILC needs to ensure that members actually adopt and embody the knowledge so that they can apply it in order to generate actual change within the policy arena. Related tools: learning routes; trainings on knowledge for advocacy/action

4th axis: learn from monitoring. Moving towards the change ILC wants to achieve is complex. As a result, ILC needs to continuously learn from its own experiences, such as projects and partnerships, in order to fine-tune its day-to-day activities, and in order to find new ways towards the envisaged change. This internal learning needs to build on the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. Related tools: internal learning notes; thematic reports

5th axis: make the roles of ILC entities complementary. ILC is a knowledge broker and this brokering requires complementarity of roles for the different entities that compose the Coalition: single member organisations, subgroups of members such as thematic working groups, regional platforms (RCUs), national platforms (NES), and the global secretariat.

These axes provide a valuable distinction between systemic strategic elements of a learning system, and the content/issues or learning events/platforms that usually are as far as people organize around. The former are critical to develop coherence amongst the latter – otherwise there are simply many poorly connected activities with undeveloped synergies, gaps and duplications. A current activity is to understand what other international organizations are doing, to help address this.

Of course people in the ILC network are particularly interested in issues represented by the 10 commitments of the ILC on People-centered land governance , How to integrate the commitments into the axes is still being developed. Given that people and organizations usually organize around the issues, one approach might be a matrix structure that would raise good questions from a systems viewpoint. For example: is knowledge flowing across levels (axis 1) in each commitment?

The next task is to integrate this framework into the operationalization of the new ILC strategic framework, which will be approved by ILC members during the forthcoming Assembly in May 2015. To date, the biggest contribution of the SKLA is to support staff and members to think systemically and enhance their awareness of the activity of others. Not all axes are at the same level of implementation and some will require more attention than others. As well, there will be more attention to the current and new tools for each axis and their alignment with specific axes to sharpen their application.

Of course the big challenge will be implementing this approach and mainstreaming it throughout the entire network. The SKLA support capacity is limited: there are essentially just two staff at the Secretariat who are leading the implementation, and its effectiveness will depend on how the members will be engaged in its implementation.

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