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Field Level Learning - notes from Liberia

Kim Scriven

By Kim Scriven on 5 August 2011.

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I've just returned from Liberia, where I've been on secondment for five-and-a-bit weeks, working to support the Monitoring and Evaluation of an ALNAP Member's ongoing emergency response to the influx of refugees from Cote d'Ivoire. While there I conducted a real-time evaluation of the response, as well as working on monitoring systems and promoting accountability mechanisms.

It's been a fascinating experience, seeing first hand the challenges faced by ALNAP Members in the field; the 'simple' logistical and operational hurdles that must be overcome, as well as the wider policy and political factors that influence the overall response. It has also been a privilege to witness and assist the provision of life-saving assistance to people in real need.

As I return to the office, amongst other reflections, I've been thinking about how we help individuals and groups at the field level to create, share and use knowledge to improve operational performance. This is something that informs all of ALNAP's work, and which has been looked at in detail in the 2003 ALNAP Study on learning by field level workers.

Working at the policy level, in many cases directly with managers at HQ, it’s easy to make assumptions about a linear process through which evidence-based policy translates into changes in practice at the field level, either by being subsumed into a given organisation’s systems and processes, or through a slow but steady trickle down of lessons and best practice to those working at the field level.

Yet in reality the obstacles to greater take-up of learning are significant. The density of much humanitarian policy literature – and the sheer volume of it – put many off, while the latest policy guidelines coming from head quarters can seem like yet another layer of bureaucracy, detached from field realities (I was particularly amused by the reaction to a donor reporting form asking for information on promgramme ‘innovations’).

Chris Blattman has previously started a discussion on how the process of transferring formal knowledge may be encouraged, including the use of audio books or reading clubs – but it may be that there are only limited opportunities for field workers to bury their heads in research reports while in situ, and that informal and tacit learning will remain the dominant forms of knoweldge exchange at field level.

This for me was the most fascinating element to be able to witness (and I hope contribute to): the informal and unstructured knowledge sharing between and across organisations, which takes place at the margins of the day’s planned business. In addition to exchanging information on the current context, security situation or the activities of agencies; the policy, practice and theory also finds space to be talked through and argued over. As the ALNAP study described it:

“Obtaining information through discussion with peers offers field workers a fast, more direct route to the critical information and knowledge they need. While much of the information and personal knowledge conveyed in such conversations may be available in written form, this may be held in unknown locations and would take time to access, read and apply before turning it into personal learning.”

The problems and limits of tactic knowledge exchange are well documented, including in the Study. Firstly, this kind of informal learning is much less likely to be captured and recorded - or connected to an evidence base, with learning being lost with staff turnover and relocation. A second, and perhaps much larger problem is that individuals or groups risk being excluded – either by not being present at a particular crucial point – or more systematically by excluding those who don’t take part in the social activities during which tacit knowledge is exchanged (an example of what this might look like can be found here).

The latter problem is particularly stark in the divide between national and international staff – a weak link where in fact there is perhaps the greatest potential benefit from exchanging knowledge. From my (unscientific) observations I would say that those individuals (both national staff and internationals) who were able to naturally exchange tacit knowledge across this boundary were also the most immediately effective in their role.

This leads me with two questions about how we can improve the way learning takes place at the field level.

  1. How can we improve the ways in which the knowledge generated informally can be transferred and recorded?
  2. How can we ensure that the knowledge and experience of all groups is valued, and ways are found to bring national staff into knowledge sharing and learning exchanges?

There will be no simple answers to these questions. On the first, social networking surely represents one way in which tacit knowledge exchange can feed into formal, documented knowledge – and it’s telling that ALNAP’s 2003 study makes only passing reference to the internet. It may be possible to try to localise the efforts to capture and document discussion, in a similar way to how ALNAP records forum discussions. But social networking and the use of the internet to exchange knowledge will always supplement rather than replace field based discussion by relief workers.

This makes the second question as pertinent as it is challenging. National staff may have less access to formal learning opportunities, or opportunities for internet access, at the same time structures through which tacit information is exchanged may exclude national staff and their experience of the local and organisational context and history. It may be that some of the suggestions presented previously, such as reading groups or the structuring of social events that bridge social and cultural divisions will help to encourage more rounded learning and can help to bridge this gap, but they can only be one part of the solution.

Returning now to conducting research on innovation, leadership and other issues impacting on humanitarian performance, it seems more important than ever to find simple, accessible ways to communicate our findings to those in the field.

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Mikael Wiking

Mikael Wiking (Swedish Mission Council) 29 September 2011, 12:45

Thank you for the shared thoughts on an indeed important and highly real challenge. I recently returned after 7 months work with the emergency response (post earth-quake and cholera) in Haiti to my desk officer position at an NGO based in Sweden. While in Haiti I repeatedly found it hard to go into depth with whatever study or report I received, the hands-on work simply required too much of my attention. The same situation was relevant for the national staff and sometimes the lack of materials in French made learning and sharing of findings in a given study difficult.
To at least partly answer your 2nd question; my experience has been that almost exclusively when you manage to make a clear and obvious link to the day-to-day activities that field workers find themselves dealing with you can create attention and interest in learning from reports or studies. Then people may see that this particular study may have direct implications for the work I am doing and it get's interesting to learn from it and focus at it for some time. The challenge is to create this link, make it accessible and attractive also for the people in the field.
Mikael Wiking,
Swedish Mission Council (SMC)

Florence Mawanda

Florence Mawanda (Christian Aid Haiti) 12 October 2011, 21:17

Thanks for these comments adequately showcasing the aching divide between 'HQ and the field'. As you rightly said there is no one size fits all solution. I note here some things I've learnt in far flung field missions in Africa and the middle east.

To the first question on thoughts on improving how knowledge generated informally can be transferred and recorded, some of the things that could be done are:

i) Design external communication strategies that ensure buy in by local media of community based solutions. This sometimes prompts other communities to apply the same methods and resolve their challenges.
ii) Monitoring and Evaluation, where possible let the community advise on how best to collect routine data and report to themselves on the programme processes. Interactive reporting systems such as feedback sessions are entirely possible to record and get critical feedback on programme direction and impact. It's also useful to let their propositions for programme adjustments count thus encouraging more disclosure of what works in their communities.
iii) Continue with existing of useful knowledge transfer sessions to ensure that exploitable knowledge in the archives of external agencies is present in the affected communities in whatever way they propose that could be beneficial to them.
iv) Include budgets for data collection and dissemination.
v) Exit strategy: Aid agencies plans to be there for the long haul sometimes kills innovation. There should be a specific goal to ensure that target communities are considered as preferred partners and there is a solid collaboration to ensure they buy into the project and are equipped with project design and fund raising skills to be able to continue the project after the exit of the intervening agency.

On the second question on how to ensure that the knowledge and experience of all groups is valued, and ways are found to bring national staff into knowledge sharing and learning exchanges?

i) Designing training programmes for expats and nationals that provide forums to discuss cultural sensitivity and promote open minded management should be a requirement before deployment in the field. ( Follow up sessions to discuss the same should be conducted periodically)
ii) Require that the local community has a real say in the decision making processes of organizations ( recruitment of locals to management positions/advisory roles for instance)
iii) Invest in training...there can be no short cut, Sometimes it should be company policy to allow field staff to take time off and improve on their skills,
iv) demystify the coded language of humanitarians...'impact, outcomes, innovations etc' the end of the day it may just come down to whether the village mama can say whether the project worked or not .

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