Friday 28 May 2010

A story of a closed learning loop

I blogged recently about the 3 steps of the learning loop

My friend Paul (pictured), when he was working at the charity Tearfund (which provides aid to disaster victims), provided me with a really excellent example of a closed learning loop. Here's the story as he told it

"One thing that is very good to do to demonstrate the success of Knowledge Management is the conscious and systematic application of Lessons Learned. Otherwise if it is not conscious, everyone assumes someone else will do it and it never happens. A very good example is the various Learning Afters we did on disaster response at Tearfund. We did 8Learning Afters from 8 disasters; sometimes from a single team, and sometimes across most of the organisation. What we found from those 8 Learning Afters is that we came up with over 300 Lessons Learned (or Specific Actionable Recommendations, as I called them).

300 is a big number! What can you do with these things? You cant do very much with 300 if you try to tackle them all head on. But what we did notice is that many of those lessons were coming up more than once. So somebody in the disaster response area - not myself; it was important that someone in the activity area did this - they took the day out, they went home with a stack of yellow post-it notes, and they sorted out all these lessons and quantified how many of these lessons came up more than once.

One of these lessons came up 6 times out of the 8. 3 others came up 4 or 5 times, and about 22 more lessons came up 3 times. All the rest that came up once or twice, we decided to put these aside for now, and the 25 to 30 lessons that came up 3 or more times out of 8, this chap took the time to embed them into the processes, guidelines and job descriptions, terms of reference, or whatever, so that next time theres a disaster, you just have to follow those latest guidelines and processes, knowing that, and in confidence that, somebody has taken the time to embed the learning. That has been very helpful for Tearfund".

Thats a simple learning loop, involving no more technology than face to face meetings and a wall covered in post-it notes. But it's a closed loop, and you can see the three steps.

• A learning step, using what Tearfund called "Learning After" meetings (what we call Retrospects) to derive Lessons Learned.
• A sorting, validation and action step, where action is taken to update the guidance documents
• A re-use step, where people follow the guidance in confidence that it reflects the latest learning.

That's a neat closed loop. Operational experience leading to learning, learning leading to change, change leading to more effective operations.

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