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Field Level Learning - notes from Liberia
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.
- How can we improve the ways in which the knowledge generated informally can be transferred and recorded?
- 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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