August 25, 2021

Giving learning a seat at the strategy table

By Ben Cairns, Director & Co-founder, Institute for Voluntary Action Research

As Carnegie UK embarks on its new Strategy, the Board of Trustees was keen to consider where and how learning fits into governance, and to develop and define its own appetite and curiosity for learning. We were delighted to be invited by Chair Sir John Elvidge and CEO Sarah Davidson to help the Board develop its thinking in these areas.

The end product of our process – delivered through interviews, workshops and much toing and froing – is a Learning Statement, setting out Carnegie UK’s commitments around culture, questions, and practices. Three things stand out from this timely and progressive approach to putting learning at the heart of a foundation’s practice and decision-making.

First, an articulation of the meaning of learning. This felt especially important given the tendency of foundation boards to default to a focus on narrow, quantifiable matters, and steer away from more open-ended, reflective conversations. When we talk about ‘learning’ at IVAR, we are talking about the process of collecting and converting many types of data – formal evaluations, individual reflections, research, impact studies, statistics, qualitative and quantitative outcome data, case studies, structured surveys, partner feedback and many more – into usable lessons and insights that will enable us to make intelligent and evidence-informed decisions about how to be more effective in a complex environment, and thus to make the best possible contribution. Good learning leads to action.  Building on this, Carnegie UK trustees were able to identify what kind of learning mattered most to them:

We want our learning to be active and forward-looking, changing what we think and how we behave in pursuit of our strategic aims.  Our intention is to achieve a virtuous circle of problem identification, action, reflection and adaptation that continually strengthens the Trust’s contribution to wellbeing. This calls for complex strategic judgements best served by a ‘highest common denominator approach’.

By focusing on our shared values and sense of purpose, and by working to develop a shared language around learning, our aim is to draw maximum value from the different experience, insights and ways of thinking represented round the board table and in our staff and partners. 

With a strong focus on ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’, the measure of our success as a learning organisation will be the impact of our learning on how the Trust deploys the various tools and approaches at our disposal to help achieve the change we want to see.

Second, embracing the concept of ‘strategic learning’. This refers specifically to the learning process as it relates to the development and oversight of strategy, where a board and senior team review progress against aims, consider what has gone well and less well, and make adjustments to the delivery of the strategy in the light of this intelligence. The commitment of a strategic learning approach is to ensure that ‘the lessons that emerge from evaluation and other data sources will be timely, actionable, and forward-looking, and that strategists will gain insights that will help them to make their next move in a way that increases their likelihood of success’. [1] For trustees, the concept helped to reconcile concerns about a possible tension between ‘formal governance’ and ‘learning’ – a familiar tension, often predicated on an unhelpful notion that learning is, somehow, a ‘nice to have’ luxury. Recognising that the development and oversight of strategy is at the heart of the Board’s governance function, trustees were able to commit to adjusting the balance of their focus towards strategic learning, shifting some of their attention away from scrutiny and oversight towards curiosity and adaptation:

We want an organisational culture that is comfortable and confident with challenge, where it feels right and natural to identify and explore things that did not go to plan or achieve the hoped-for value, so that we can develop and improve our contribution. We want learning to be embedded in day-to-day practice at all levels of the Trust, and we see it as a collective effort for which we are all accountable, in line with our different responsibilities. Developing an open and confident learning culture – where everyone is clear about their roles, responsibilities, and relationships – is a marathon not a sprint.

Third, recognition that how you do it matters. During our final conversation with Sarah and John, we highlighted three things to pay attention to as trustees and the senior team begin to acclimatise to ‘continuous learning governance’:

  1. For this transition to work, trustees will need to model different and consistent practices and behaviours – in part to embrace the idea of more open-ended conversations and offset the risk of defaulting to more formal and rigid conversations and interactions. The spirit of this needs to be: ‘give it a go, trust the integrity of the process that has led us here; we believe that that this is the right thing to try’. It will call for kindness and patience as people adjust.
  2. That will need to extend to rewards and incentives which are often linked to things like KPIs and metrics, rather than, say, curiosity and experimentation.
  3. Distinguishing between ‘the accountability space’ and the ‘learning space’ will be important, albeit that, ideally, there is a virtuous circle created between the two. It’s a case of ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’. But the learning space needs to be more free-flowing and emergent, and less rule-bound, while the accountability space needs to be sharper, with duties and responsibilities more clearly described and demarcated.

[1] Coffman, J., & Beer, T. (2011). Evaluation to support strategic learning: Principles and practices. Washington, DC: Center for Evaluation Innovation.