Musings about learning about action about change in an Exchange

Last week I was on the premises of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) in the UK co-facilitating an interesting Knowledge Exchange about ‘Acting on what we know and how we learn for climate and development policy‘.

Together with fellow co-facilitators Pete Cranston and Carl Jackson and with the benediction of the CGIAR research program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS – with respect to the work we are doing together around the social learning sandbox) we embarked on a triple-loop learning journey…

Social change, mixing learning and action (credits - APC Women)
Social change, mixing learning and action (credits – APC Women)

The design of the event was ambitious in as far as we hoped to induce all participants into a triple loop social learning journey that would reveal and challenge our assumptions out in the open and map the way to action and change – in this case for climate change.

Our plan was simple: look at what we have learnt so far (single loop social learning), what we could do to change this (double loop) and how we might go beyond our current perceptions and unearth new jointly defined solutions to some of our problems (triple loop). Pete already shared his views about the event and what answers, questions and insights it brought forward. Some more posts may be coming and will be shared here. Here are mine, as they relate to the focus of this blog on learning for social change.

Of learning…

We all said it and all felt it: triple loop learning didn’t (really) happen. The kind of transformation that is alluded to in triple loop learning can only really take place with most, if not all, of these ingredients:

  • A full cycle of moving from learning to action and back to learning and back to action and… More about action below, but the point is: working together over time induces triple loop learning because it stimulates…
  • Trust, which leads to understanding each other’s perspectives and the assumptions below. We just surfaced some of these assumptions in the event but did not really went beyond. There was initial mutual exchange and interest but the deeper the trust  the more profound the learning as we can explore rougher edges and less comfortable areas.
  • Multiple and complementary – not similar – perspectives and ‘knowledges’. This was perhaps crucially missing in our event since the majority of participants were Northern academics (a really nice group at that!). All very different of course but with a broadly common socio-cultural and professional background.
  • More time for individual and collective reflection – across three stretches of 1.5 hours  of group work, we hardly had the time to elicit that collective reflection leading to the generation of properly new insights.
  • A collective agenda (not necessarily a common one but one that brings each agenda into a collage) that pushes all to stay on course and go through the ups and downs of engaging with different visions, languages, capacities…

It was only naive of us to hope to achieve any of this in a workshop, even though a good deal of single loop and double loop learning did take place and helped us understand what we have done in the past and what we could do in the near future.

Ha, the near future…

…leading to action…

Is there much purpose for learning that does not lead to action? Knowledge to do what? We did have a marketplace of actions, insights and commitments towards the end of the workshop but I have to confess I am quite skeptical about the intention and capacity (time and attention!) of participants to keep true to their words.

Dealing with elephants in the room like 'power', a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits - Michelle Mockbee)
Dealing with elephants in the room like ‘power’, a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits – Michelle Mockbee)

One of the groups was candid enough to mention that the ideal picture they had developed over the event was not going to happen because of the general inertia of the (policy) system to do anything about our findings. They were probably right. But frankly, shouldn’t we worry about having (great!) conversations that lead to no action? Perhaps we need to turn our reflection up side down and gear ourselves up to action from the start.

I did find a few useful elements in the Knowledge Exchange to think about the linkage between learning and action in such settings:

  • Address the elephants in the room. Power is one of them. Ignoring these big drivers is  unrealistic, yet ending our reflections with them leads to that powerless feeling that none of this matters and nothing will ever change anyway because we’re facing a big challenge. Instead, one group really addressed such issues from the start and got to a very good start in identifying smaller but useful steps to act upon our learning. 
  • Thinking again about the commitments of our participants, we seem to be onto re-evaluating what happened after the workshop in 3, 6, 12, perhaps 18 months… this would be great to help everyone realise that we have to challenge our assumptions about action also.
  • Related to that light evaluation, there is perhaps something to say about facilitating learning for change. Without a finger on the pulse, a (group of) guardian(s) of the action temple, words remain up the air and action has difficulty following learning. This is one of the lessons of that CCSL sandbox mentioned above: the active presence and intervention of knowledge gardeners increases the fertilisation of beautiful knowledge trees.
  • Action finds a fertile ground in tighter-knit groups. Where social capital has been built, the lessons unearthed in an event find a more hopeful pathway to be a seed for something else which might be…

…leading to change…?

Change, like wisdom, is not only difficult to reach – and easy to be reluctant about – but it’s also quite elusive. In a typically complex manner, it is the subtle result of many inter-connections, inter-weavings and interactions, on a long temporal scale and often a multi-layered geographic scale. Even if action happens, and even if it builds on learning, it may not be the guarantee that change itself comes about.

The Knowledge Exchange helped relate change to action and learning:

  • Don’t we just need – as individuals and collectives – to do something about change, genuinely, in a militant sort of way? That’s what I read through Dave Pollard’s writings too. In that sense, realising we may not be able to change the system is – in my humble opinion – simply not acceptable if we care about purposeful learning. 
  • Don’t we yet also need precisely a purpose – and a good timing – for learning and change? In his post, Pete relayed this impression from a participant that we may only act upon our learning and effect change within ourselves much after an event – like dormant sentinels of change ready to be activated when the occasion presents itself?
  • As civic-driven initiatives teach us and some ideas about embarking on an agile KM enterprise, we have to work with the existing ground – the ‘enabling environment’. That is where the large institutional picture comes in, and where social learning is a really promising avenue for social change. Work with what is there already, rather than with (only) an aspirational ideal that ignores the current situation.
  • Real change happens when individuals and collectives coalesce. All the work we have done in groups, as one plenary group and as individuals in this event, to challenge our assumptions and think about what we have learned and what we can do about it is a set of inputs that sooner or later may contribute to a general direction of change. We may not be able to evaluate it, to attribute it or to learn deeply enough about it, but change happens this way anyhow.

So what then?

If I consider that we had fun as facilitators, and that most participants seem to have learned something and to have enjoyed themselves, the Exchange was – despite all shortcomings – quite successful. And as facilitators we always have a slightly different take from an event.

As for triple loop social learning, well, the Knowledge Exchange was a sort of mini-lab to think about it. If anything, we’ve understood that the required scales of time, space and engagement depth are simply not going to happen in such a short setting. Yet, some seeds are planted and, who knows: if social learning is not affected by climate change too badly, we might see new knowledge gardens flourish over time, pollinated thanks to the distant breeze of a Knowledge Exchange.

Related blog posts:

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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