Alligator trumps turtle

Learning beyond training, to survive and grow

Reda SadkiWriting

Humanitarian organizations already organize and deliver training on a massive scale. For example, the Red Cross and Red Crescent train 17 million people each year to practice life-saving first aid, in addition to the training of its 13.6 million active volunteers. Training has been tacitly accepted as the primary mechanism to prepare volunteers and staff for humanitarian work, from the local branch (community) to the international emergency operations (global).

However, the humanitarian sector lacks a strategic approach for learning, education and training (LET), despite a widely-acknowledged human resource and skills shortage. In addition, the sector is deeply ensconced in face-to-face training culture, with many humanitarian workers earning at least part of their livelihood as trainers, and training events are key to developing social and professional networks but not necessarily to developing key competencies needed in the field. Whatever its merits, this approach to training cannot scale up to face the consequences of climate change, deepening gaps between rich and poor, or other growing humanitarian challenges.

Also, the sector suffers from high turnover, lack of standardization in training practice, proliferation of education programs with no measurable benefits or relevance to operational needs, and a dearth of evaluation of learning outcomes. There are several cross-sector initiatives that are trying to address these problems, but these initiatives have ignored the potential relevance for the humanitarian context of both the rapid change in workplace learning and the disruption and potential transformation in higher education through educational technology and 21st century pedagogy.

First, a reductive focus on formal training is unlikely to lead to improvements in service delivery.

Second, the strategy should leverage both innovation and history to do new things in new ways, mobilizing multiple appropriate technologies to accelerate all dimensions of learning, and updating them whenever this demonstrably improves outcomes. It should rely on rational experimentation linking research with learning, even when this may involve a risk of failure.

Third, this strategy needs to conceptualize learning from a global perspective, and provides solutions to both scale-up (take a successful local innovation and increase its impact so as to benefit more people) and scale- down (localize and adapt to local knowledge and needs) to foster policy and programme development on a lasting basis. It should provide practical solutions for staff and volunteers from the periphery (branches, village) to develop, peer review, improve, and circulate their own knowledges, in addition to harnessing, remixing and augmenting knowledge from the center (headquarters, capital city).

Fourth, knowledge will be characterized as a process (“know-where”), not as a reservoir (“know-what”), and the strategy will serve to connect with others to cull out the most current from the flow of knowledge, however rapid its pace. An adaptive, individualized lifelong learning strategy should encompass accretion (learning is in the network), transmission (learning as courses), acquisition (self-motivated learning), and emergence (learning as cognition and reflection).

Fifth, learning analytics (scalable, continual analysis and feedback loops learning outcomes), leveraging the affordances of technology, should feed research and drive innovation and improvements in delivery science.

Sixth, the learning strategy should address not only the levels of action (from local to global) but also the connections between them (ex: how local volunteers and global teams learn from each other before, during and after emergency operations). Leadership and team work development (ie, nodes and networks) will be recognized as cornerstones to learning in our hyper-connected world.

Like the outcomes it aims to produce, the strategy development process should be practical, agile (iterative), adaptive, evidence- and results-based, and demand-driven. New, practical approaches to learning (ex: George Siemens’ connectivism, Bandura’s social learning, MOOCs) first theorized less than ten years ago can already deliver a KISS (Keep It Simple Strategy) with scalable solutions effective in both outcomes and cost.

At the end of the day, a learning strategy needs to be laser-focused on a single question: how to further learning in all its forms to leverage an organization’s (or sector’s) mission. Building on the already-central role of learning, education and training, a learning strategy is urgently needed for the sector to survive and grow. We need to do new things in new ways to deliver on our mission faster, better, and further.

 Reda Sadki

Photo credit: Claus Wolf/