It often feels as if the various approaches and frameworks embraced by the social sector are in competition with each other. After making big institutional investments in one or more of these frameworks, organizations can build up an immune reaction to the next new idea.
Whether an organization is trying to live into the six practices of Trust-Based Philanthropy or the three principles of Equitable Evaluation, or launching a new strategic direction, there is a call for learning — whether it’s implicit or explicit. This is where Emergent Learning fits in — to help partners learn their way through adopting these frameworks or implementing their plans, keeping their goals as their north star and experimenting along the path to fit with their own ever-evolving situations.
Emergent Learning focuses on the white space surrounding the boxes in a framework, strategic plan, or evaluation program. What do we need to learn in order to make this idea a reality here? What do we do if we hit a roadblock? Are there other pathways we could take to adjust? And because EL is about learning to ask the right question at the right time to expand thinking in these spaces, framework-weary groups don’t need to “sign on” to yet another one to benefit from the practice of Emergent Learning within these initiatives.
The practices of Emergent Learning are intentionally simple, practical and universally applicable. For instance, groups can bring any kind of data or stories into an EL Table (the Ground Truth quadrant) to make meaning of them and find ways to apply them — whether it’s research findings, an evaluation report, or a series of board meetings. The meaning making process (the Insights quadrant of an EL Table) can draw on approaches like systems thinking, or Social Network Analysis to notice patterns and relationships and deepen reflection. Once they identify an opportunity to apply what has been learned (the Opportunity quadrant), any number of planning and measurement tools can be used to prepare to test it out.
Emergent Learning can be brought into a strategic planning process. For instance, the questions of a Before Action Review help to establish Line of Sight and to ensure that a team is bringing what it knows so far to the planning process. The question/answer process of articulating hypotheses can help a group pressure test its thinking and make sure that all voices are being heard.
Emergent Learning is not an end in and of itself. The product of EL is about the learning that happens — the potential that gets created — along the path toward achieving concrete results, using whatever process or framework a group has embraced.