The power of three learning approaches and their combination? Capitalising, systematising, documenting processes and experiences

Working with partners in Francophone West Africa always feels to me as a refreshing experience – except perhaps in a meteorological sense. It puts the concepts, approaches and tools we play with from my IRC base in the Netherlands in stark contrast with the local reality on the technological, conceptual and linguistic side of things. As such it invites me to explore my own mental models again and to ponder about different linguistic traditions of learning and knowledge management (1).

In one work session in Burkina Faso a few days ago two colleagues from CREPA Burkina Faso and I discussed the difference between ‘capitalisation’ (a learning approach almost exclusively referred to in French) and ‘process documentation’ (2). This blog post is an opportunity to compare these two concepts coming and in the process, to tackle the concept of systematisation (‘sistematización’) dear to many KM heads in Latin America.

Can we see more clearly when combining three learning approaches?
Can we see more clearly when combining three learning approaches?

What’s in the book?

So first off, here’s a short series of definitions from the best sources I could find (please enlighten me!):

  • Process documentation: Following the definition provided in the recent WASHCost process documentation workshop, process documentation is “an approach that helps track meaningful events, discern reasons for happenings and highlight project (or intervention) issues that need advocacy and action to create and improve impact of the project”.
  • Capitalisation: Often specifically refers to experiences (capitalisation des expériences). SDC’s excellent ‘guide sur la capitalisation thématique des expériences’ provides the following definition: “La capitalisation des expériences est un mode de traitement des expériences visant à produire du savoir. Il s’agit d’un processus d’apprentissage permettant d’amener des changements en s’appuyant sur des expériences disponibles encore inexplorées”. (3)
  • Systematisation: on the online SIWA discussion group (dedicated to knowledge management and learning in Spanish and primarily in Latin America), Margarita Salas recently shared a useful paper by Oscar Jara Holliday stating the following definition to systematisation: “se atribuye a la Sistematización la misión de recuperar y reflexionar sobre las experiencias como fuente de conocimiento de lo social para la transformación de la realidad, objetivo inherente a la naturaleza del trabajo social tal como era definido en ese período”. (4)

Nuances and differences

What do these definitions say?

  • Process documentation is more closely related to learning-focused monitoring and evaluation as well as communication and it emphasises observation and analysis;
  • Capitalisation is more closely related to (knowledge) management and specifically the task of supporting an improved practice and developing the institutional memory;
  • Systematisation is very close to capitalisation but it is more inherently related to the Latin American context and is particularly attuned to social work, its main objective perhaps being to bring about social change and empowerment.

So what distinguishes these terms?

I put together this table to try and outline differences between approaches but of course this is just a model. Each particular case of using capitalisation, systematisation and/or process documentation implies to adapt the approach to the context. This table shows some patterns, no more, no less.

An attempt at comparing the three approaches
An attempt at comparing the three approaches

Integrating approaches

Beyond differences, it is valuable to look at the synergies between approaches:

The key value of process documentation is its ongoing nature (it goes along other intervention activities), its creative use of media and its focus on continually informing implementation. The added value of capitalisation is to synthesise findings from experiences to inform change in future interventions. In turn, systematisation proves its worth in its social nature and the fact that it helps address issues of power relations and empowerment during an intervention.

If the context allows or commands it the three learning approaches could be integrated to offer a strong combination of documentation, learning, synthesis and application for social and other types of changes.

A combined approach would help make an intervention more effective now and in the future and it would also address power relations and negotiations between individuals and groups. It might offer a fertile ground for a deeply transformative learning experience, for the benefit of the people involved in and benefitting from the intervention (and from similar interventions in the future).

So far, I don’t know of such combinations and perhaps this idea is just a naive illusion but it seems certainly worth a more thorough analysis.

In the meantime, at the very least, I hope this post will offer a good basis to further discuss with my colleagues from CREPA and hopefully to trigger more reactions beyond…


(1)    This is all the more timely as we are in the process of setting up a francophone KM4DEV community of practice (see here the starting Ning group page and feel free to join!).

(2)    See more posts related to process documentation: Process documentation – Sandbox to influence donors?That PD thing againCapitalising on process documentation – and changing names please!

(3) Approximate translation: Capitalisation of experiences is a manner to processs experiences aiming at generating knowledge. It is a learning process that brings about changes based on available yet untapped experiences.

(4) Approximate translation: The mission of systematisation is to recover experiences and reflect on them as a source of knowledge about social phenomena with a view to transform reality, an objective which is inherent to the nature of social work as defined in this context.

Note: Thank you Nick Milton for pointing out to the need for translations. I hereby offer my own translations but would welcome any finer interpretation! Any translation implies a certain loss of meaning, which could be high in this case, particularly for the Spanish translation!


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hi Jorge!

    Yes, a shame we didn’t get to discuss this back then. That will remain the ever-lasting challenge of knowledge management – actually finding excellent resources exactly as and when you need them.
    Perhaps if you revisit that publication some day? Thanks for the link – glad to see it’s a free download too.


  2. Dear Jaap,

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate and share your view in general: there is a lot of value in (process-) documenting on the fly to reduce the lag time between observing a factor that influences an initiative positively or negatively and responding to it (amplifying positive aspects or curbing negative ones).

    However, the term ‘capitalisation’ also refers to a specific practice which ends with a synthesis of all the documentation carried out – in that respect it differs from process documentation and complements it.

    But on the bottom line, you’re right: don’t waste time not documenting what’s going on as the more dynamically you are observing the issue and analysing it, the more quickly you are addressing it.


  3. See
    To me ‘Capitalization’ should be on the fly and thus tends to be process documentation (see picture in link). Get the information produced (by PD activities) out again must be systematised: get a grips on the arena’s, agenda’s, audiences etc 🙂

  4. Dear Nick,

    Thank you for your comment. I will add the translation in the notes on the post itself. Cheers!

  5. Very interesting, thank you

    For the non-francophones, could you translate the SDC definition of Capitalisation please, and the Holliday definition of Systematisation? Thanks

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