KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Learning on the frontlines

with 5 comments

A few months ago I was appointed “Learning Manager” for my office, responsible for leading an office learning plan and helping foster the creation of a culture of learning in the office as well as helping facilitate staff access to learning opportunities. This is not a full-time position, rather a set of additional responsibilities added on to my existing job.

The “Learning Manager” role is something that UNDP created for every office some years ago as a way of strengthening organizational learning in individual offices, and this plus the considerable wealth of online courses available to staff via the intranet on the “Learning Manager System” displays a strong commitment to foster learning by UNDP.

At the same time learning managers are often quite junior staff (I’m in the relatively rare position of being a learning manager and an actual manager too). Typically this role is lumped in with the Human Resources  assistant position (or HR associate as they are called in UNDP) which is also typically a local staff recruitment. Last week I participated in an orientation/skills development course for new learning managers which was a great opportunity to speak to other learning managers and find out how they do their job.

What I heard was both daunting but also encouraging. Many new learning managers were struggling to get traction on learning in their offices due to resource constraints, mixed levels of support from managers, lack of focus on learning due to workload and the challenge of getting things done without any formal authority and on top of doing their “regular” job (and I might add unrealistic expectations from the organization on what a learning manager can physically manage to do).

But I also encountered a highly motivated and resourceful group who were finding different ways to achieve results in challenging circumstances. The shared challenge that all were trying to address is how to maximize office  learning with limited time and money and no formal authority. I’m sharing here some of the ways, both strategic and tactical that learning managers are getting the job done.

1. One of the key challenges is making the case for learning with the head of office and management team. Different approaches used for this include making the case for learning as an investment in office productivity (appeal to logic), reminding that it is part of the “rules” and measured in the office scorecard and comparing how the office is doing to similar offices e.g. in the same region (appeal to authority), or emphasizing the effect it will have on staff morale and creating goodwill in the office as well as helping the staff at a personal level to deal with changes in the organization (appeal to emotion).

2. Another challenge is balancing the roles of facilitator and enforcer. Learning managers are expected to ensure that all staff do their mandatory online trainings (ethics, gender, security etc.) and that the office has a learning plan and that individuals have learning goals in their performance appraisals – yet don’t have the authority to make people do this, especially those who are reluctant. Ultimately though the most fulfilling role for the learning manager, and probably the one that achieves the best learning results is to foster a learning culture by responding to people’s needs, interests and aspirations and acting as a facilitator and coach to help people learn rather than trying to force them to do the compulsory things they may not be enthusiastic to do.

3. At a tactical level when budgets are tight it is often not cost-effective to send individuals on external training courses out of the country, and local opportunities may be limited. However you can benefit from extensive expertise and experience that is already in the office.  Example approaches to this include i) organizing a “skillshare” session where staff members share a skill they have (possibly from a previous job) with the rest of the office, either as a training course or as a coach ii) have staff who do go on external trainings or who go on work travel to debrief the office on their learning as a routine event or requirement iii)  taking advantage of visitors from HQ or regional offices and asking them to carry out a training or briefing as part of their visit iv) inviting speakers from local partners.

4. Pooling resources – e.g. sharing learning opportunities with other UN agencies or with government and NGOs. This could be by organizing joint trainings or by having a reciprocal arrangement to allow people from other organizations to join trainings organized by the office in exchange for being able to send people to their trainings, and routinely sharing information on learning events with one another.

5. Make use of online resources – this can involve using online courses developed by the organization or licensed through an external provider for example in UNDP staff have access to a wealth of UNDP and externally developed courses through their Learning Manager System. Other options include use of MOOCs (massively open online courses), webinars or other online and remote learning opportunities.

6. Mentoring and coaching – setting up individual peer-to-peer learning exchanges within the office or between offices in the same region. This can be valuable as it provides ongoing support rather than just an episodic training. One more sophisticated way to do this is to use the self-assessment peer-assist methodology (from Collison and Parcell’s Learning to Fly) where offices (or individuals) self-assess their learning needs against a set of criteria and then are paired up according to needs and strengths.

7. Organizing regular learning events or learning days (e.g. once per month) where staff devote time to learning to ensure learning is regular and recognized. Other similar approaches are sending out weekly TED talks, articles., presentations or other short pieces of interest to stimulate learning without consuming much time.

8. Some offices seek to regularly send staff on “detailed assignments” or give them “stretch assignments”. these are short-term opportunities to take on a more challenging assignment to fill in for a temporary vacancy or a colleague on extended or maternity leave either within the same office or in another office. These may also be used in place of hiring external consultants for specific needs e.g. preparations for a major UN event. These provide on the job learning that can be particularly helpful for national staff who have deal with the catch-22 of needing international experience needed to move to an international posting.

9. Find ways to reward learning by publicly acknowledging those who have completed learning activities (such as having them receive an award from the head of office at a staff meeting) or those who have contribute to sharing their knowledge and skills. There was also some discussion on the pros and cons of “name and shame” for those who don’t complete mandatory trainings, although I’m not personally in favour of this.

10. Network of learning managers – perhaps the most powerful way of sharing good ideas, learning opportunities or even just to get moral support is through networking between learning managers in different offices. Having access to experience and advice from other offices is an excellent way to improve learning whether by sharing templates and examples, or helping share resources or by providing feedback on potential courses or trainers. Perhaps the most valuable support though is in sharing advice on how to get management support and how to motivate learners.


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 2, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Learning

5 Responses

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  1. […] Learning on the frontlines – KM on a dollar a day – few months ago I was appointed “Learning Manager” for my office, responsible for leading an office learning plan and helping foster the creation of a culture of learning in the office as well as helping facilitate staff access to … […]

  2. […] A few months ago I was appointed “Learning Manager” for my office, responsible for leading an office learning plan and helping foster the creation of a culture of learning in the office as well as …  […]

  3. Ian, this is an excellent blog, thanks for sharing your experience as a Learning Manager. I also have the same role in our office and what you summarize is just so true. Learning is what you make it to be internally.I enjoy working on the learning agenda and there is so much potential and possibilities out there. Learning should not be about mandatory courses, or just trainings and learning courses where ever they happen. We should engage and advocate for on-the job learning as much as we can, as learning without experiencing and acting does not provide us the full scale of the learning experience. We are all busy and have so much work to do, why not to think of formats that make it possible to do all at once. Balancing all should keep us in instant learning process. Hope you will share more insights later on.
    One of the formats we experimented with was around skill share a Skills Marketplace for our staff, you can check our blogs at

    Denisa Papayova

    December 3, 2013 at 11:29 am

  4. Ian, in surveying the KM world both within and outside of development, and what I know of organisational learning theory, from doing my PhD. To explain:

    • There’s distinction are between organisational learning, and individual learning; the latter we know about from schooling; the latter is something new, more difficult, and more important for organisations to understand and practice.

    • another important distinction is between learning as knowledge acquisition, and learning as knowledge creation. The former is to procure knowledge from external sources and is, by definition, knowledge old enough to be prepackaged. Knowledge creation is the source of new knowledge.

    • A third distinction is between learning from one’s own practices, either through reflection, or analytics. Nonaka, Schon and Argyris were big on the former, the tapping of tacit knowledge; Davenport on the latter, the collection of internal data.

    When I look at your role as Learning Manager, it seems to be totally about external knowledge acquisition for individuals. Most of falls under the rubrics of compliance and training. But the most powerful and radical kind of learning is internal knowledge creation for the organisation. This seems to have fallen by the way side, in favour of the simpler kinds of learning which are—really—little different from what one finds in grade school.

    So what happened? Why has KM and learning in an organisational setting not engaged with the more potent side of organisational learning theory: eliciting tacit knowledge, deep analytics, reflective practice, organisational learning? It seems that these, in being the unique property of an organisation, are more likely to be a direct value in driving competitive advantage, innovation, and a unique contribution to society.

    David Week (@davidweek)

    December 10, 2013 at 8:13 am

    • David

      My blog was a report of what I experienced during my induction training to be a new learning manager which is a long established function, but perhaps one that still tends to operate in a fairly traditional way. I haven’t yet fully digested how it should link with the related but also different KM functions that I undertake. UNDP does do a lot of work on eliciting and sharing tacit knowledge and on social learning through its long established knowledge management practice and thematic communities of practice as well as its internal social software “Teamworks”. More recently UNDP has also being working on developing an approach to innovation that puts a strong emphasis on human-centred design, experimentation, prototyping and working out loud. I think that the issue may be that the work on tacit knowledge sharing and social learning on the KM side is not (yet) strongly linked with the official learning function in UNDP so these activities take place mostly in parallel. I think both are useful and the challenge is how to join them up.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 10, 2013 at 8:36 am

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