Work to return learning to the system amplifies, expands, and accelerates learning.
This principle also helps to ensure that learning is not built on an extractive process that harvests data and stories from partners without re-engaging to share insights and learning process outcomes. It recognizes that many of the global and societal challenges that we are working to address will require deep and rapid learning well beyond our group and that we can help create value and insight that can benefit others that can in turn be used to benefit us all.
What does it mean to return learning to the system?
Returning Learning to the System refers to the ability of the whole system of people and organizations working together to achieve a social goal to learn from the collective experiences of individuals as they explore different pathways to achieving a shared outcome. It is akin to how bees return to the hive and do a “waggle dance” to communicate to others “here’s where I found nectar.” This means finding a way for individuals in the system to easily and regularly communicate to peers, “Here’s what I saw, here’s what I did, and here’s what happened as a result,” and a way for the community of peers to compare these stories, begin to see patterns, and make meaning from them, so that everyone can learn from their collective results in order to strengthen everyone’s thinking and actions in a fit-for-purpose and just-in-time way.
What are the challenges and opportunities for returning learning to the system?
The learning that resides in the people who make up a system is a hugely undervalued asset. Returning Learning to the System bumps up against ingrained mental models and habits of practice that slow down or completely block this kind of learning. But it is also the biggest and potentially least expensive investment to make to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge comes in creating opportunities at the rate needed. People trying to solve complex problems in very dynamic environments do not have the time to wait for annual gatherings to compare notes with peers or wait five years or even one year to get evaluation data about their results.
In practice, Returning Learning to the System might not even look like what we traditionally think of as “learning.” It might look like good decision-making — where teams insert just one more question: What have we learned from the past that might make this successful this time? Or conference sessions that go beyond 10 minutes of Q&A at the end of a panel presentation to give everyone in the room a chance to reflect on their own experience related to questions raised by the session. Or using the opportunity of board preparation to add a moment of reflection across programs to look for patterns and trends. Technology platforms that make it easy to collect stories.
Just-in-time and simple peer assist conversations. Participatory evaluations that are designed in a way that supports learning in all directions — from participants to the funder and from participants to each other. These are just a few of the ways that we can leverage this undervalued asset.
What does this principle look like in practice?
The presence or lack of returning learning to the system can manifest itself in a number of ways. Here is what we have observed:
- If it’s present: People across the system — especially those doing the real work towards a shared goal — find ways to share what they are seeing, doing, and learning regularly, in fit-for-purpose ways. Results are visible, and failures are seen as important to learn from as are successes.
- If it’s missing: No news is good news. There is no appetite for learning and/or learning is seen as a big, cumbersome process that happens only infrequently. The core team (the funder, intermediary, or other organizing group) is the hub — but really more of a gatekeeper — for learning activities and sharing, which is mostly one-way dissemination. If members do experiment, they keep it to themselves or have no obvious way to share what they have discovered.
How Emergent Learning practices support this principle
The practices of Emergent Learning help to return learning to the system:
- Framing Questions invite people to bring their experiences to the table to reflect together.
- Emergent Learning Tables create the space and structure for this kind of collective inquiry — “What do we know so far?” — based on data and stories from across the system.
- Before and After Action Reviews help teams make results and what they learned visible, and make it easier to talk honestly with others about both their successes and disappointments.
Returning Learning to the System can be a powerful way to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Encouraging people to share their own experiences and insights creates connections and grows agency and innovation. A system that is rich in this kind of learning shows. People ask richer questions, experiment with new ideas, reflect more honestly on results. You can actually see a whole system getting smarter over time.