A major source of inspiration for me in my organisational development work has been the Canadian writer on organisations and management, Henry Mintzberg. When I was working for Save the Children UK back in 1989 I read his book ‘Mintzberg on Management’ and one of the many ideas that leapt off the page for me was his explanation of the realities of strategy development. Mintzberg’s model introduced the idea of emergent as well as planned strategy. For me it was liberating to see someone formally recognise what we all know – that the best kind of strategy is open to adaptation in response to circumstances (emergent strategy), always bearing in mind the plans the organisation makes for achieving its mission (planned strategy). It seems incredible now that this was an insight that few other management writers had thought of, but back in the late 1980s it was a revelation!
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the idea of emergent and planned could be applied in other ways – particularly in the field of organisational learning. It fits very well with the idea that organisations need to create an enabling environment that encourages individuals and teams to reflect on and learn from their experience and from others (what I call emergent learning) and the importance of developing a more structured and planned approach to learning (planned learning). This is where the idea of a ‘learning agenda’ comes in. I don’t know who first coined the term ‘learning agenda’ but I think it is a useful concept for all organisations to consider. In simple terms, a ‘learning agenda’ is a set of questions – broad in scope – directly related to the organisation’s work that, when answered, will enable the organisation to work more effectively. A good example of a learning agenda can be found in the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s issue area framework paper on promoting ‘Social Inclusion and Respect for Diversity‘ in their work on early childhood development. The learning agenda related to policy influence on social inclusion comprises the following two questions:
1. What kinds of policies are supportive of reduced violence and enhanced social inclusion and respect for diversity?
2. What evidence, processes and strategies are successful in influencing these policies?
These questions help to shape important decisions such as their choice of partners, who they fund (they are a Foundation) and how they commission research.
Questions in a learning agenda work best if they are open, broad in scale, and genuinely interesting (to stimulate the curiosity of staff and others). A good learning agenda can help an organisation focus its work priorities and link together learning at the four main levels (individual, team, organisation and inter-organisation).