Supporting Equity-Centered Strategic Learning Practices: 3 Lessons From Our Work With 9 Grantees

by Rohini McKee, Associate Partner of Strategic Initiatives

We all want to work at places where we feel safe to test out new ideas, can openly share what we learn from our successes and failures, and steadily grow our individual and collective capabilities. Research also shows that in addition to more engaged employees, organizations that have cultures that support experimentation and shared learning are more likely to be innovative, effective, and sustained. Yet, it’s not always easy for leaders and teams to transform themselves into learning organizations. Recognizing this, Catalyst:Ed partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mathematica last year to support a cohort of nine grantees interested in strengthening their strategic learning practices through targeted technical assistance, provider-led panel discussions on top-of-mind issues, and connection time between grantees. 

But what is ‘strategic learning’? While there are many definitions, we mean a set of practices, tools, and mindsets through which organizations continuously set actionable goals, build strong organizational practices and systems to foster innovation and learning, and use information to measure progress and improve their model on an ongoing basis to ultimately improve outcomes for their targeted beneficiaries. 

“This work has catalyzed a new strategic planning process and solidified a team of leaders at our organization who previously worked largely in siloes.” – Pivot Learning

So what did our work look like? We:

  • Developed the Capacity Building Strategic Learning Self-Reflection (CBSL) Framework, a practically-relevant and action-oriented framework with a focus on the skills and abilities that researchers, providers, and high-performing practitioners told us are needed to successfully sustain equity-centered strategic learning practices. 
  • Facilitated team self-assessment conversations at the beginning and end of the grant period, which then formed the basis of the technical assistance projects.
  • Matched organizations to technical assistance providers for their capacity building projects. Projects included aspects such as:
    • Developing a measurable theory of change
    • Creating deep technical metrics
    • Building a culture that utilizes data routines
    • Adopting equity-focused knowledge management and continuous improvement processes
    • Creating mixed-method, culturally-responsive measurement tools to assess the impact of their programs

Here are three key lessons from our work: 

  1. An explicit focus on equity needs to be core to any strategic learning process. For instance, it is important for an equity-centered organization to reflect on questions such as who is encouraged to innovate within the organization, whose needs are met and whose perspectives are considered, what data is collected and how it is interpreted and used, whose failures are celebrated. In the absence of an explicit focus and the necessary structures, norms, and commitments, key voices are left out, learning opportunities are missed, and buy-in is lost – and the learning processes remain an extension of traditional power dynamics rather than serving those it is meant to serve.  
  2. Organizations need the flexibility to develop their own way of assessing and creating strategic learning structures and practices. Organizations have different starting points, goals, values, and infrastructure. As a result, there is no single approach to building strategic learning capacity. What is important is a common language and core set of principles that undergird the process regardless of the specific pathway taken by an organization.
  3. Getting clear on the “why” and “what” of strategic learning helps clarify organizational needs. The framework with its eight capacities and associated look-fors helped clarify what strategic learning is – and isn’t. Additionally, through our facilitated conversations, we were able to push participants to think critically and explain how each capacity showed up at their organization leading to more targeted supports at the individual and collective level. 

“The project moved us an important step closer to integrated knowledge management and the ability to engage in systematic learning from our often disparate data sources” – New Profit

The strategic learning initiative wrapped up earlier this month, with grantees reporting that they felt better equipped to become learning organizations with equity at the center. Interested in learning more? Email us at [email protected].

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