Painting at Trigonos (25 January 2017). Personal collection.

The future of learning that could have been

Reda SadkiLearning strategy

In June 2017, the Institute’s president, together with its Chief Learning Officer (CLO), convened an all-hands-on-deck meeting to announce the Institute’s commitment to strengthening its learning culture of innovation and change through an innovative, evidence-based internal learning strategy. Staff were invited to nominate and then elect representatives to the Learning & Development Committee (LDC), mandated with the challenge of ingraining learning “karma in the walls and halls” as key to delivering on its promise to prepare a new generation for the coming humanitarian challenges.

In July, the Institute performed its first benchmark of learning culture and performance. This demonstrated that staff learning is key to mission, financial, and knowledge performance (ie, to delivering results). This benchmark was followed by a learning practice audit in August that woke both managers and staff to their existing strengths and the amazing ways in which they were already continually learning at the point of work.

By the end of 2017, in response to this evidence, DFID and other donors agreed that 5% of budgets be used to support internal learning. In 2018, the LDC’s first elected chair, supported by senior management, staff, and managers, began investing in learning events that recognised and reward on-the-job innovative ideas, problem-solving and significant break-throughs. Staff rapidly learned to rely on these new approaches rather than costly, formal training.

Invited to participate in these learning events, partners expressed growing interest in adopting this methodology to their own contexts, significantly raising the profile of the Institute as an innovator and sector leader for learning.

Staff capabilities grew rapidly and engagement soared in 2018, as managers worked with their teams to define one development objective as part of their performance objectives. Each member of staff added to their personal learning dashboards the activities (both formal and informal) that reflected the diversity and productivity of their learning practices. People inspired each other to go further, sharing and collaborating in new ways. Staff were encouraged to take on stretch assignments, with the assurance that they would no longer be penalised for failure.

By 2019, retention remained impressively above the sector average, as managers adopted the practice of “stay interviews” to mitigate turnover, working within a strong HR system that recognised the need for clear career progression pathways that reward positive behaviours and leadership for learning.

Given the strength of HR and learning systems, this rapid growth in capabilities and leadership was visible to all, shared internally and externally, and directly benefitted the Institute’s partners. High-performing teams were recognised and rewarded during memorable all-staff learning events. External partners asked to join these events, as many of the innovative practices and outcomes were directly relevant to them.

Starting in 2018, new staff reported feeling positively transformed by their induction into the Institute. Formal onboarding was limited to essential information found in the new shelf of crowd-sourced, curated resources for staff learning. Instead, new people were quickly assigned a guide – both a peer and a mentor – from another team or centre. They were invited not just to consume content about the Institute, but to feed back on what they need to function effectively.

By the end of 2019, the LDC repeated its learning culture and performance measurement. The results highlighted a dramatic improvement in performance correlated with the growing strengths of its learning culture.

By 2020, the Institute was recognised by its donors and partners as a model for how to organise and strengthen staff learning to drive performance. Institute branches worldwide reported a growing number of requests from partners – humanitarian organisations but also firms from technology and other industries – who, in the past, may have been reluctant consumers of its learning products. They began to request that the Institute advise them on how to adapt this new internal learning strategy to their own context. Conversely, demand for high-cost, low volume formal training (both digital and face-to-face) diminished as partners begin to recognise that the most significant methods to improve preparedness and response for humanitarian crises are to be found in the day-to-day activities of their staff, volunteers, and the communities they serve.

Image: Painting at Trigonos (25 January 2017). Personal collection.