Learning Design

Educational theorist Etienne Wenger can be credited with promoting the fact that the “community of practice” process used by major corporations also can be useful to the social sector. Communities of practice regularize “learning,” recognizing it as more than an ad hoc informal activity. Typically, “tacit knowledge” of people deeply engaged with the work predominates in shaping decisions, learning from observations, and reaching conclusions. For example, grantees self-report what they accomplish and learn, grant-makers form viewpoints based on their observations and field knowledge, and impact investors make judgments based on leaders, ideas, and innovation.

Learning processes build on tacit knowledge

Learning design calls for building on tacit knowledge and for adding structures to capture that knowledge. In doing so, learning design may add other processes that lift up “evidence,” such as research and evaluation, and create opportunities to carve out time and opportunity for dialogue, reflection, and deliberate learning.

Communities of practice provide a basis for assessment

Communities of practice tend to be regularized and can serve many purposes, including:

  • Gaining a deep understanding of a pressing problem
  • Developing strategies to navigate complex situations
  • Assessing what is working, and when and how to adjust the course

Communities of practice are most successful when there is a core group made up of people who regularly participate and learn together. Other learning processes are more targeted, including:

  • Strategic debriefs of a particular evaluation or research study can mine learnings in order to incorporate them into future activities
  • Production of “knowledge products”—e.g. , working papers, discussion papers, white papers or learning briefs that stimulate field development—which are resources developed intentionally to share learnings and to promote best practices, innovation, and smarter work
  • Learning circles, which provide opportunities to digest evidence, reflect on tacit knowledge, or discuss application of evaluation to strategic and programmatic decisions

The intentional focus on learning processes does not suggest that learning is a new concept for organizations. Rather, these processes create more discipline and transparency, and utilize collective wisdom in order to advance progress toward ambitious goals.