KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Too much learning by doing?

with 4 comments

“Action without study is fatal. Study without action is futile.” – Mary Beard

There was an interesting twitter discussion earlier this week on #NPcons (not for profit consultants tweet chat) about the relative merits of thinking and doing and the sense that not for profits have a tendency to take action, but not take the requisite time to think about things first.

This echoes a discussion that has been taking place in house about whether we as an organization depend too much on “learning by doing” and don’t reflect enough on the latest thinking and developments in social science and development studies from outside the organization.

I think its a fair criticism to say that too much programme design and  implementation isn’t taking into account the latest available knowledge.  But it’s important to recognize that the type of knowledge that is needed in programme design is manyfold. In addition to looking to see whether plans are informed by the latest scientific research, we also need to look to see whether there is any relevant prior experience both within the country and in similar contexts. We also need to look at the “political economy” – basically how far can we reconcile what we believe is technical correct with what we can convince others to do.

Perhaps the real problem is not  “learning by doing” so much as doing without any learning at all. Symptoms of this would be basing what we do only on our own ideological views or our past experience and instincts and ignoring evidence and learning from others.  It would be failing to incorporate ongoing learning into what we are doing now if it doesn’t fit our views (because we already know the right thing to do and how it is going to work out). It would be the idea that doing something, anything (and being seen to do it) is better than doing nothing at all.

In a sense though I think there is a bit of a false dichotomy between thinking and doing. In development work you can’t really separate the two, and they shouldn’t be in competition. Instead you need to find ways to integrate the two such that doing is informed by thinking and thinking is informed by doing.

You should  think before you do something of course. But also you also need to think about what you are doing while you are doing it and afterwards (what worked and why, and why what worked in theory might not have turned out exactly as you expected in practice).  And if you are involved in development programming it’s not enough to study and research just because  you want to know – and the idea that study can be neatly separated from experience is a misleading one. To be useful learning needs to be focussed on how to improve policy and take action. Both the design of research – but also how it is written up and communicated need to take into account how it can be used to not only inform but also influence decision making on the ground.

Once we have arrived at the stage of having an evidence informed plan – then we need to get into the real business of learning by doing. This means we need to build in suitable mechanisms to monitor and evaluate our programmes and to reflect on them and learn from them as part of the programme design and implementation. To do this we might need to design the programme and then evaluate it around an explicitly identified theory (or  theories) of change.  It also means doing things like collecting suitable baselines, using appropriate methods to be able to determine the outcome and impact of the programme vis a vis other interventions or changes in the environment. It means seeking feedback from partners and beneficiaries, and it means self-reflection on the experience (including using tools such as after-action reviews). Finally it means feeding back whatever insights were gained from the project into the broader body of knowledge of the organization you work in or better the relevant field of development such that this can be used by others.

This last step of feeding back our experience to others is crucial, but often overlooked. Not all programmes are rigorously evaluated or generate bulletproof data on impact – but with some effort on design and monitoring and some reflection afterwards they should all generate learning which can help inform others. If we did this then we would really be learning by doing – and this would be a very good thing.


Written by Ian Thorpe

June 30, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Ian,

    on a grand scale I’m having this debate over on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, under the heading Less Epistemology, Move Evolution:

    Philanthropy Action

    July 1, 2011 at 10:19 am


    Do you believe, even we could “doing by learning” instead of “learning by doing”? ( visit my URL – THE FUTURE OF LEARNING : WILL IT BE PARADIGM SHIFT FROM “LEARNING BY DOING” TOWARDS “DOING BY LEARNING” ?). From my other article – “Model framework by Nature : Human System Biology – based Knowledge Management (HSBKM)” which is emphasizing “new paradigm of Knowledge”, among others mentioning, ….our diagram titling “Knowledge is the edge of Science” – Here, Knowledge within Science continuum located in grey area and there should be shifting paradigm of Knowledge that will open towards new era in which Scientific Knowledge, a term where Knowledge treated as object, could becoming “Knowledgeable Science”, a term where Knowledge treated as subject.
    Surely we could partially treat KM as science considering K is object, but in an advance domain, KM should be treated as “Knowledgeable Science” rather than “Scientific Knowledge (Management)”. Of course, Knowledgeable Science domain should be modified and/or adjusted to put Knowledge more skewed to the right within D-I-K-W continuum. Here, among others we preferred using “possibility” rather than “probability”, “complexity” rather than “simplicity”, “genomic/consciousness DNA” rather than “mind brain” or “human senses”, “seeking Right or Wrong” rather than “seeking Good or Bad” and “True or False”, concern more with “Knowledge-base” rather than “Data-base”, trend in using “evidence-based and reverse engineering” rather than “deducto-hypothetico-verificative (scientific pathway), “social media 2.0-3.0 tools” rather than “multi media tools”, “doing by learning” rather than “learning by doing” etc…..

    Md Santo
    • Founder Social Networking and Learning Resources Site “Mobee Knowledge CoP” –

    Md Santo

    July 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

  3. Hi Ian, Good post. My experience with aid orgs (and others, to be fair 🙂 is that there’s a lot of rhetoric around all aspects of learning. There’s often an impatience to get on with the ‘doing’ or ‘action planning’ without much reflection or reference to possible innovation from both internal and external sources. The reliance on summative evaluation puts people into a mechanistic frame of mind, and when that’s applied to complex situations means, I think, a lot of potential for ‘learning by doing’ is lost because there’s no effective feedback mechanism – even if there is a well-articulated program logic. My approach has been to re-introduce people to the ancient art of conversation – so much can be learnt from each other by ‘just talking’ 🙂
    Cheers, Viv

    Viv McWaters

    July 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

  4. […] 1. Encourage your organization to be a learning organization:  There is a lot of useful thinking ‘out there’ that can be extremely helpful to us as practitioners when our organizations value and allow time for reflection.  For example, Donald Schon in “Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action”  talks about “Reflection-in-action”,  an improvisational decision-making approach that professionals can bring to their everyday practices, as they operate under conditions of complexity, uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict.   David Snowden has a Cynefin Framework, a similar approach that looks at how we Sense-Analyze-Respond. We take in new data (sense), then we can consider its implications (analyze), and try a new approach or pilot (respond).  Ian Thorpe on his excellent blog, KM (Knowledge management) on a Dollar a Day reflects periodically on what it means to be a learning organization, including this post “Too Much Learning by Doing?” […]

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