Institutional memory (making) and learning across project silos


Every (smart) development organisation wants to be a ‘learning organisation’. It’s perhaps a doomed enterprise, or a red herring. But there is one thing that every organisation can do to reduce its silos: to learn across its various projects and programs (let’s call them projects here).

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits - KievCaira)

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits – KievCaira)

Developments projects are rich learning grounds, since most development (cooperation) work follows a trial-and-error process – it’s not necessarily condemnable actually.

The basic idea is that the lessons learnt at the end of the project are carried over to subsequent projects, developing the institutional memory. Perhaps it happens, but not always. Yet it could happen throughout the lifetime of projects, not just at the end – continuous institutional memory making. Remember process documentation and related approaches?

Yet that doesn’t happen much. Everyone’s too busy. Projects take time to find their own dynamics, to create their common language, to develop trust among key parties, to get all parties involved in the transformative part where they start developing greater than the sum of the parts and start thinking outside their project box.

So let’s have a shoot at learning across project silos and explore what could be useful ways to learn and share that learning…

What could be interesting ways to learn across project silos?

Usually, projects are mostly concerned with the ‘what to do’. Few are wondering about the ‘why and how’ but this is sometimes just as important, if not even more important. The what is concerned with the activities and outputs that supposedly will bring success to the project. The why connects visions, ideals, perspectives and bonds people at a deeper level. The how is what makes or breaks a project and is the architecture that conjugates concepts and visions with actions and responsibilities. What skills, methods and processes are required to achieve the project objectives.

Why is universal and important to share in order to influence the culture (and the soul) of the organisation as a whole (across its projects), it’s what helps generate principles that guide whole groups of people and generate energy. What is usually very much focused on each project and perhaps the least share-able part of a project (because we focus so much on this partly explains why we don’t spend more time sharing across projects). How is rich in lessons, ideas, capacity development tips and tricks, tutorials and materials that guide the effective implementation of activities, and it relates to other questions such as who (a critical question), when and where etc.

So what can be learnt across projects?

Why Principles, political agendas, drives and motivations of the organization, culture, soul, mission and purpose, (implied) leadership model, assumptions about impact pathways
What Activities, outputs, assumptions about impact pathways
How Conceptual frameworks and mental models, approaches, tools and methods, guidelines and tutorials to use these, identification of capacities (knowledge and know-how) necessary to achieve objectives
Who Mapping of actors, their agendas, the nature and strength of their relationship, the density of the network, who are the connectors, who are the isolated nodes, where are opportunities to reinforce the social fabric among actors
Where Spatial scales and geographic mapping of actors and their activities
When Temporal scales and pacing of actors and their actions and of influence pathways over time

So how can we effectively learn across projects?

There are a few pre-requisites that make this learning more likely to take place:

  • A conscious approach to documenting change and willing to use what has been collected to inform activities – and a place where that documentation is easily accessible for others.
  • Realising what is good to capitalise on, in a project – the unique selling point or added value of that project;
  • A flexible monitoring and evaluation framework that embeds this learning in adaptive management;
  • Good relations among project teams and a willingness to share for a wider collective benefit – be it the organisation or anything beyond.

And there are many ways we can build that cross-pollination and learning among projects:

If we made all these aspects more explicit in each project, we could organise share fairs among projects to assess how we are looking at the rationale and ideal of the project (the why-related issues), how we are thinking of relating all activities in the project’s impact pathway (the what-related issues) and how we are thinking about capacity development and concrete approaches and methods to implement the project (the how-related issues).

Simple meetings to zoom in on one aspect of the table would also help to come up with simple and concrete guidelines that bring together the experiences and insights from various projects.

Developing fact sheets about the methods and approaches used would itself help understand the how factor better.

Planning organisational retreats to zoom in among others on the ‘why’ would also inform a collective design of projects and reinforce conditions for learning across projects.

Systematic reviews of these different aspects as part of the M&E or process documentation – undertaken or shared with other projects’ proponents – could also help cross-pollinate better.

Developing project proposals that relate to the same set of issues would also help make these projects more comparable and easy to learn from one another.

Inviting another project team in another project’s workshop is another way to share across projects.

Of course, relying on people to cross-pollinate individually (as they end up working in different projects) is another way but a slower and perhaps more hazardous one – as it also requires those people to have solid personal knowledge management and to consciously carry over lessons from the past to the present and future.

So, there really many ways to learn across these projects. Now that we are conscious of what it takes, what are we waiting for?

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One thought on “Institutional memory (making) and learning across project silos

  1. Pingback: Questions | In the Flow

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