Oxfam Novib’s ‘Learning Day’

I was very fortunate to be asked to speak at Oxfam Novib’s ‘Learning Day’ at their head office in The Hague, The Netherlands on 12th June 2008. Oxfam Novib are an organisation that has really embraced the ideas of organisational learning and knowledge management at a strategic level and in their day-to-day work. One of the initiatives they have established is an annual ‘Learning Day’ that involves all head office staff in a ‘festival’ of learning and sharing – and when I say ‘festival’ I really mean it! From the moment I arrived at their office I knew something special was going on. There was a vibrant atmosphere of expectation that was obvious as soon as I stepped through the door. The importance attached to the day was underlined by the Chief Executive who opened the day by emphasising the crucial importance of learning in helping Oxfam Novib achieve its challenging strategic aims.

Throughout the day there were workshops, presentations, discussion groups and other activities involving Oxfam Novib staff as presenters and facilitators but also involving outside speakers like myself. Lunch was provided in the form of ‘brown bag’ packed lunches including Fair Trade and organic ingredients. The attention to detail was incredible and the day ran incredibly smoothly. If sound level is an indicator of people’s engagement and enthusiasm then the lunch demonstrated just how successful the day was!

I was asked to make a presentation and I chose the theme ‘Investigating the Crime of Learning in Organisations’ – hanging the presentation around the approach to learning discussed in an earlier post. However, I really was preaching to the converted and whilst participants found the presentation entertaining (using theme music from CSI and pre-recorded interviews with a learning ‘criminal’ and her manager to stimulate discussion) I suspect some of the underlying messages were not new to many of the participants. The organisers were keen for everyone to attend my presentation so I was asked to present it twice – in all, over 150 participants were involved.

At the end of the day the party began! The organisers had arranged a salsa band to provide live music and whilst some danced into the evening, others nibbled on snacks provided by a mobile food stall serving up a range of delicious tapas.

What were the messages that I took away from the day? That learning is crucially important for organisational success; that a ‘learning day’ can be a really fantastic way of bringing people together and celebrating achievements and that a well-organised event that focuses on learning can be energising and great fun! Many thanks to Arelys de Yanez and her colleagues for inviting me.

Why MMO?

Why – you may be wondering – is this blog called ‘Motive, Means and Opportunity’ (MMO for short)? The main focus of the blog is learning and development in Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the title relates to a paper I wrote for the Oxford-based organisation INTRAC entitled ‘Organisational Learning in NGOs – Creating the Motive, Means and Opportunity‘. One of the people I interviewed during the research for the INTRAC paper told me that she felt learning in her organisation was treated as if it was a crime – she felt she had to steal the time necessary for reflecting on her work even though the organisation was the main beneficiary of her learning. That made me think about the idea of trying to create a ‘crime wave’ of learning in organisations.

People with an interest in detective novels and television series such as CSI will know that for anyone to be a suspect in a crime three things must be established: their motive (the reason for committing the crime), means (the knowledge, skills or tools used in committing the crime) and opportunity (the conditions that made committing the crime possible). All three are necessary – just two won’t do. So if we want to encourage our people to commit the ‘crime’ of learning, we need to provide motives, means and opportunities to everyone in the organisation. In reality, the motive is rarely a problem – I believe most people love to learn and naturally want to share their knowledge with others. However, providing the means can be more of a challenge particularly for those of us who don’t value the knowledge we have or can’t find a suitable way of expressing it to others. The biggest challenge for organisations is to loosen up enough to create opportunities – both formal and informal – for learning individually and collectively.

Providing opportunities relates to what I call ‘planned’ and ’emergent’ learning. Planned learning relies more on creating formal opportunities to create and share knowledge that relate to organisational learning ‘agendas’ – longer term focuses for individual and collective learning. Emergent learning requires organisations to create a range of ‘spaces’ (what I refer to in the INTRAC paper as a “rich ecosystem of possibilities”) that provides a fertile environment for people to reflect individually and collectively but with no pre-determined plan for what will emerge. This treats learning as an end in itself or, more accurately, a means to an end which is, as yet, unclear. Both planned and emergent learning are essential in healthy, effective learning organisations. The challenge I intend to explore in future posts is how to encourage both types of learning in ways that lead to organisational creativity, adaptability and sustainability.