Learning and sharing experience: Lessons for learning processes in NGOs
This document provides guidelines for organisations wanting to analyse their field work experiences. The authors start by highlighting the importance of “experience capitalisation”, as a crucial activity towards improving the quality of actions undertaken by NGOs. Looking at this process in detail, they see in it a demanding exercise, and point out some of the reasons why many organisations do not document their work (lack of time, lack of resources, or because “I don’t know how to…”).
Making a difference between tacit (or implicit) knowledge and explicit knowledge, the authors look at the necessary process of creating collective intelligence, and at the importance of learning collectively from experience. Capitalisation is seen as a process of externalisation, as it makes tacit knowledge explicit.
Furthermore, taking part in the process of capitalisation can develop the capacities of organisations implementing projects similar to the one analysed. This is not to be an academic exercise conducted by theoreticians. On the contrary, “it starts from practices and enriches practices”.
The document looks then at what one should capitalise. It recommends identifiying an organisation’s crucial knowledge, and capitalising experiences related to this knowledge. It then looks at the need for communication and dissemination of the results: “the lessons learnt from experience must be available equally to those directly involved in the experiences capitalized and to any other stakeholder facing the same issues”.
The importance of ensuring that dissemination takes place is thus highlighted, as an integral part of the capitalisation process. A simple and inexpensive method, for example, is to place documents online. These documents, however, need to be attractive and easy to read. This may mean extra work in terms of format, layout and style.
A capitalisation project
The authors consider that the best way to succeed in capitalisation is to conceive and implement it as a project. “This means defining the objective, expected results, and necessary resources, and then planning, steering and assessing it.” After making the objectives explicit, this requires:
- identifying a question or capitalisation subject, as one which will shed light on one experience. Subjects are chosen on the basis of the organisation’s interests, basically considering the information which a given experience can provide, and if this information is of interest to the field teams;
- identifying “potentially concerned parties” in addition to the persons who are going to be actively involved in the capitalisation process, and then considering the participation of external partners;
- defining the method to follow. This will depend on different factors, such as the expected final product (whether it is an article or a video); the number of people participating in it; the sources and types of information available; and the way in which the whole process is validated.
Next comes the process of elaborating a document, from the definition of the specifications to the final distribution. This needs to consider who “wields the pen” or has the main responsibility for writing the document, and who (and when and how) will support the process. Attention must also be given to distribution, the language in which it will be made available, and deciding if it is sent to field teams, to partners or to other organisations.
Benefits from learning organisations
The goal of a capitalisation process must be to contribute to modifying practices within an organisation. This is not an easy process: the authors present here a series of obstacles frequently experienced while improved practices are evolving. A common one is that “one often prefers to move quickly on to something else (another project, another fad) rather than take the time to question oneself and learn from one’s practice”.
It is therefore necessary to see capitalisation as part of a larger framework of knowledge management, and not as a solitary exercise. This means considering –and budgeting– the capitalisation process from the beginning of a project (not just preparing for it at the end of the project) and linking it strongly to the project’s assessment.