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Learning about learning. Wait! What?

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks thinking about Learning Partnerships, what they are, what they can offer and how we can make them more effective.

In my role as Project Director on the MasterCard Foundation ‘Savings Learning Lab’ (MCFSLL) I get to work first hand on a learning partnership, and was recently with the foundation participating in a learning event with other learning partners from across their different work including digital finance, education and their scholars programme – I heard about some really interesting work and approaches to supporting learning. I was also part of an Itad panel with Chris Perry and Claire Hughes talking at the 2018 UKES conference sharing our wider experience of moving from evaluators to learning partners for certain projects.

What is a learning partnership?

As funders and implementers seek to solve increasingly complex, inter-related problems, many are looking for organisations to undertake the role of a learning partner working alongside, and sometimes embedded in, portfolios, programmes and initiatives, to help them to ground their strategy in sound research and support them to evolve and adapt in real time based on the best available evidence.

At Itad, we’ve learnt a lot about the different roles and approaches that can be used to ensure our evaluations are utilisation focussed and that the work we do is grounded in the need of our clients. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard that a learning partnership can be many things and I have been inspired by the variety of different approaches and roles that my colleagues at Itad are using to help our partners learn.

What makes a learning partnership?

From our conversations, it is clear that a learning partnership focussed on one programme will require a different approach to one that works across a large portfolio of partners, but there are some recurring themes we’ve seen that make a learning partnership really work:

  • Understand your stakeholders and their learning needs and preferences: Learning partnerships provide the opportunity to build relationships and understand the evidence needs of the different stakeholders in the partnership. These needs may be very different (those of funders and implementers often are) but the opportunity to truly understand these, and really focus research and learning, offers an ability to be more effective and efficient. However, this process can be resource intensive and therefore difficult for learning partners working across large portfolios of partners.
  • Navigating different roles: Learning partnerships are often long-term engagements, and the roles can and will change over time. Therefore, it’s important to be clear about these from the beginning. In the MCFSLL, sometimes we are working directly to support partners, while at other times we will also be undertaking independent research. Having the different people and skills within a team with the ability to navigate these different roles is crucial.
  • Show utility at decision-making points: Understanding your stakeholders gives you the opportunity to identify decision-making points and learning needs in advance. If the learning partnership is focused on a particular programme it’s important to secure management support: aligning monitoring and evaluation (M&E) outputs with management information needs and demonstrating the value of systems through prototyping and piloting can help make champions out of managers. Using your knowledge to provide the right information at the right time is key.

This resonates with Itad’s thought leading work on adaptive management and feedback loops.

  • Build a monitoring and evidence-based culture: Decentralising the M&E function and making it everyone’s business crowds in resources for M&E and strengthens utilisation and ownership of results. Creating incentives for M&E can be one way to do this by creating a mix of benefits.

Portfolio learning partnerships can support a culture of looking at wider evidence. This could be done by supporting partners to navigate the relevant current evidence base through activities such as evidence mapping, and by linking partners to up-to-date external evidence from outside the portfolio in a short and focused format. This can also be a two-step process connecting/linking evidence and learning from partners to the wider evidence. This ensures that interesting insight and evidence is connected to the wider conversations happening in the relevant sector.

The points above also reflect the discussions that we had with other the MasterCard Foundation learning partners and at the UKES conference, where we had a really interesting conversation about the difficulties of navigating the different roles and also how funding organisations can create the right environment for learning partnerships to be effective.

I’ve certainly learnt a lot in the last few weeks and am excited about the work we can do in supporting partners with their evidence and learning needs.