Learning in Public: To What End? | Beth's Blog

Learning in Public: To What End?

Guest Post

Flickr Photo by Justin Benttinen

Note from Beth: I’m hosting a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who are attending the  GeoFunders National Conference taking place this week in Seattle.   The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference  shares a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers.     If you’re not attending and curious what funders are learning,  you’ll have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions being discussed right here on this blog.

Learning in Public – Guest post by Victoria Dunning

Learning in Public.  Sounds pretty awesome, right?  It involves creating a forum where wide and varied stakeholders can share and learn together in an open, transparent way.  And in this networked world where social change and social movements can be seeded overnight with a viral video on YouTube, such public collaboration on complex social issues can have multiple benefits.  It allows us to see and share our success and failures for ourselves and others to learn from and advance to the next level.  It allows us to get on the same page –  literally –  with the same set of data from which to base our assumptions, and to fill in our gaps in knowledge to make more informed decisions.  It takes transparency and accountability to a new level where there’s no hiding the facts, and if framed and accepted well, will not be limited to evaluative determinations of success or failure, but will be celebrated for the learning and opportunity for course-correction that it provides.

At the 2012 GEO conference, I learned about a Big Experiment for Learning in Public undertaken by the Packard Foundation, together with TCC Group and Beth Kanter.  I have to admit it sounded more than a little daunting for several reasons.

First, the risk – standing there learning naked with everyone else.  I mean if we’re going to learn in public, it better be a collegial and supportive environment.  If learning in public means showing our vulnerabilities – be it less than primped up data sets or underperforming grant investments – then the risk of the ‘gotcha’ environment must be tempered down. Way down.

The time, money and effort also sounds overwhelming.  One of the takeaways from The Big Experiment was that a high level of effort and commitment was required by all stakeholders to make it work well.  That just made me want to run screaming back to my silo where I can get work down efficiently on my own with my computer and an intern or two.  When time and money are at a super-premium, all that extra commitment and dedication better be worth it.  The funny thing is that for those involved in the Big Experiment, it seems as if they liked working collaboratively, even if it was more time and more work, and it sounds like it was worth it.

And finally, the so what?  Learning for learning’s sake has high rewards every time.  But learning in public for what?  And why? And how?  And it turns out, those are pretty important questions.  Being clear on the desired outcomes for learning in public goes a long way towards its success. Defining the platforms – be it a wiki forum, open data sets for analysis, or a webinar – that provide the best pathways for learning to take place will make the process that much speedier and easier.  The who?  Many conference participants professed feeling more comfortable in a controlled public environment of limited stakeholder representation.  But yesterday’s session suggests the more open, public and wide the stakeholder platform, the better.  Throw open the doors – there’s learning going on!

At The Global Fund for Children, we’ve worked hard to establish a culture of measurement, monitoring and learning about our role as a grantmaker, about the tangible and intangible benefits of our grant investment model, and about understanding of the wicked social problems we are trying to mitigate.  Admittedly, much of our learning has been an internal process, sharing occasional snippets and highlights with our grantee partners and a wider range of stakeholders. This learning model has served us well, and above all it has been safe and comfortable.  But our world changing- it is more networked and more transparent, and the social change we wish to influence is more complex.  Collective and collaborative problem-solving can get us farther faster.  Throwing open the doors and making our learning public feels a little risky.  But where there is risk, there is great reward.

Victoria Dunning

Victoria Dunning is Vice President for Prorgams at The Global Fund for Children, where she thinks big about small grants to grassroots organizations serving the world’s smallest citizens.

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