Connecting Communications and Learning for Results

If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you may already be familiar with the concept of “open sourcing social change.” It’s a decentralized, collaborative way of learning; sharing lessons; and communicating about our work. At its core, open sourcing social change is about solving complex, multidisciplinary, and seemingly intractable issues at scale by sharing knowledge and lessons with our partners and the broader field in real time. The hope is that by sharing what we are learning, we can help others do their work better by not making the same mistakes we made.

We’ve been operating under the open sourcing social change model for about a decade now, and we have learned a lot about the approach. One thing we have learned and invested in recently is the tight connection required between learning, communications, and our performance management processes. In most places, these functions would be separate entities, but we have intentionally created a unified team that serves these functions. We saw that by bringing together our learning work with our communications team, we can make sure our content meets the immediate needs of our network. And overlaying performance management with these functions helps ensure that our initiatives are contributing to the results we wish to see, through their content strategy and learning processes.

The combination of these functions has been challenging at times, as most people do not have all of these competencies at once. Typically, organizations are really good at data analysis or really good at storytelling, but not usually both. But we have seen the value in this combination and want to share our lessons on the process in a true open-sourced fashion.

Marrying Functions for Stronger Results

We call our unified team “Learning, Storytelling and Results.” We believe that marrying the learning function with our storytelling as well as performance and results work produces stronger results in the real world. With the support of a singular LSR team, Living Cities initiatives take the time they need to discuss what they’re learning, evaluate their programs, and codify and make meaning of those lessons. With those lessons codified, LSR can then help package those lessons into content that’s compelling and accessible to an audience of practitioners working to close racial gaps. We have created infographics, guides, and interactive timelines based on these learnings. And through that content and storytelling, Living Cities can see what resonates with the field, gather additional interesting practices from others, and feed that information back into our learning process.

Ensuring a Strong Feedback Loop

Fine-tuning those processes and ensuring a strong feedback loop took an entirely new approach to how these formerly separate teams worked. We had to start with a team vision, as well as norms and values that would guide how we work together and how we collaborate within the organization. We set up regular reflection sessions across teams to ensure that everyone understood what each team was learning, and why. We developed new tools and resources for teams, like quarterly data dashboards and a list of learning-oriented check-in questions for meetings, plus the processes to go with them.

Central to this process was also an internal culture-building plan. We created a new “Learning, Storytelling and Results” internal newsletter that highlights major learnings each month, and we established templates that would allow teams to plan both their learning agendas and their related content strategies. Additionally, we have regular open office hours that give staff an opportunity to pose relevant questions to LSR team members and find support. Finally, we deeply support our “learning liaisons,” a unique role within the organization.

Supporting Our Learning Liaisons

Essential to all of this work is the role of “learning liaisons” – point people to the learning process on each Living Cities initiative. Learning liaisons are deployed strategically across our initiatives to “hold” the connection between communications, learning and performance management and ensure their teams are upholding the procedures and processes that more tightly connect the functions. They also make connections across teams. If one team learns something that is relevant to another, the right people can benefit from that learning.

Without the learning liaisons, we couldn’t produce more than 150 discrete pieces of content each year. While we do have core communications staff to issue organizational-level guidance, support our digital platforms, and share best practices, it’s the learning liaisons that support the distributed learning, results and communications model.

Centering Racial Equity in the Process

In addition to supporting the learning liaisons in their work, LSR considers itself a crucial operational partner when it comes to racial equity and inclusion. From the sample agendas we create for teams and our creative briefs to our regular racial equity pause points and special campaigns, LSR is constantly looking for ways to infuse racial equity into learning, storytelling and results processes so that teams do not need to treat racial equity as an add-on but rather a central value and driving force in these important bodies of work.

In the coming weeks, we will follow up this introductory blog on LSR with more specific posts that dig into storytelling with a racial equity lens, racial equity-centered emergent learning tools and strategies, our learning liaison role and processes, and our theory of change and performance measurement procedures. All are designed to help our network more tightly connect their learning, monitoring and evaluation, and communications work for maximum impact.

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Connecting Communications and Learning for Results

If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you may already be familiar with the concept of “open sourcing social change.” It’s a decentralized, collaborative way of learning; sharing lessons; and communicating about our work. At its core, open sourcing social change is about solving complex, multidisciplinary, and seemingly intractable issues at scale by sharing knowledge and lessons with our partners and the broader field in real time. The hope is that by sharing what we are learning, we can help others do their work better by not making the same mistakes we made.

We’ve been operating under the open sourcing social change model for about a decade now, and we have learned a lot about the approach. One thing we have learned and invested in recently is the tight connection required between learning, communications, and our performance management processes. In most places, these functions would be separate entities, but we have intentionally created a unified team that serves these functions. We saw that by bringing together our learning work with our communications team, we can make sure our content meets the immediate needs of our network. And overlaying performance management with these functions helps ensure that our initiatives are contributing to the results we wish to see, through their content strategy and learning processes.

The combination of these functions has been challenging at times, as most people do not have all of these competencies at once. Typically, organizations are really good at data analysis or really good at storytelling, but not usually both. But we have seen the value in this combination and want to share our lessons on the process in a true open-sourced fashion.

Marrying Functions for Stronger Results

We call our unified team “Learning, Storytelling and Results.” We believe that marrying the learning function with our storytelling as well as performance and results work produces stronger results in the real world. With the support of a singular LSR team, Living Cities initiatives take the time they need to discuss what they’re learning, evaluate their programs, and codify and make meaning of those lessons. With those lessons codified, LSR can then help package those lessons into content that’s compelling and accessible to an audience of practitioners working to close racial gaps. We have created infographics, guides, and interactive timelines based on these learnings. And through that content and storytelling, Living Cities can see what resonates with the field, gather additional interesting practices from others, and feed that information back into our learning process.

Ensuring a Strong Feedback Loop

Fine-tuning those processes and ensuring a strong feedback loop took an entirely new approach to how these formerly separate teams worked. We had to start with a team vision, as well as norms and values that would guide how we work together and how we collaborate within the organization. We set up regular reflection sessions across teams to ensure that everyone understood what each team was learning, and why. We developed new tools and resources for teams, like quarterly data dashboards and a list of learning-oriented check-in questions for meetings, plus the processes to go with them.

Central to this process was also an internal culture-building plan. We created a new “Learning, Storytelling and Results” internal newsletter that highlights major learnings each month, and we established templates that would allow teams to plan both their learning agendas and their related content strategies. Additionally, we have regular open office hours that give staff an opportunity to pose relevant questions to LSR team members and find support. Finally, we deeply support our “learning liaisons,” a unique role within the organization.

Supporting Our Learning Liaisons

Essential to all of this work is the role of “learning liaisons” – point people to the learning process on each Living Cities initiative. Learning liaisons are deployed strategically across our initiatives to “hold” the connection between communications, learning and performance management and ensure their teams are upholding the procedures and processes that more tightly connect the functions. They also make connections across teams. If one team learns something that is relevant to another, the right people can benefit from that learning.

Without the learning liaisons, we couldn’t produce more than 150 discrete pieces of content each year. While we do have core communications staff to issue organizational-level guidance, support our digital platforms, and share best practices, it’s the learning liaisons that support the distributed learning, results and communications model.

Centering Racial Equity in the Process

In addition to supporting the learning liaisons in their work, LSR considers itself a crucial operational partner when it comes to racial equity and inclusion. From the sample agendas we create for teams and our creative briefs to our regular racial equity pause points and special campaigns, LSR is constantly looking for ways to infuse racial equity into learning, storytelling and results processes so that teams do not need to treat racial equity as an add-on but rather a central value and driving force in these important bodies of work.

In the coming weeks, we will follow up this introductory blog on LSR with more specific posts that dig into storytelling with a racial equity lens, racial equity-centered emergent learning tools and strategies, our learning liaison role and processes, and our theory of change and performance measurement procedures. All are designed to help our network more tightly connect their learning, monitoring and evaluation, and communications work for maximum impact.

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Living Our Values as a 21st Century Learning Organization: Lessons from Digital Community Engagement

Living Cities has been exploring and defining what it means to be a 21st century learning organization since its inception in 1991. We have always placed a premium on learning over success. Ben Hecht, our CEO, likes to talk about Living Cities as an “innovation lab” where we test out new ideas to then spread what works to our member institutions and around the country. We began to put a framework on our learning agenda around 2012, when Ben wrote “Leading in a Hyper-Connected World”. The organization began to invest significant resources in knowledge and learning capacities, which included evaluation, communications, and knowledge management.

Living Cities is funded by its members in three-year funding cycles, and for the 2016-2019 round, we decided to refine and focus our learning efforts in the hopes of building a 21st century learning tool: a digital platform that would connect practitioners around the country to help them achieve their results in closing racial income and wealth gaps.

We knew that the social sector needed significant investment in digital infrastructure—similar to the massive connectivity investments of wifi, search engines, and social media of the 2000s. We knew that while we could not undertake the massive investment required to create a digital infrastructure that serves the needs of the social sector, we could create a digital tool that meets the needs of our network, and also test some specific hypotheses in the process to build the understanding of what it takes to use digital technologies to encourage learning and racial equity.

Today we are releasing a new report that details the process and findings from the development of that digital tool. The report outlines the approach and values needed to undertake a digital community engagement effort, and what organizations should consider if they want to be successful with online engagement.

Goals of the Development Process

We intentionally built our digital platform as a series of pilots. To live our values as a 21st century learning organization, we knew that we could not come up with a project plan with rigid time-lines or completely defined goals. Instead, we developed some general questions and set some assumptions:

  • How do we support a community of practice? Understand the scaffolding to put around existing communities of practice that will support the development, spread, and adoption of most promising practices.
  • How do we co-create a platform for sharing? Co-create a digital platform, building on existing technology and networks, for the effective sharing and scaling of solutions.
  • How do we build a repository of solutions? Build a robust, dynamic repository of economic opportunity solutions that is easy to discover.
  • How do we encourage collaboration in our ecosystem? Facilitate purposeful collaboration between Living Cities staff and stakeholders.

What We Learned

To answer these questions, we completed fieldscans of existing digital infrastructure, as well as developed several partnerships with other organizations to understand the needs of our community and how we could meet those needs. These partnerships included Sphaera, the Gates Foundation, Slalom, Context Partners, and Strategic Learning Partners. These partners helped us test what works and what doesn’t to authentically engage our communities.

We learned the following takeaways:

  • For an organization to achieve social impact, it needs to work in an open, networked way. A network of partnerships can help accelerate results through the sharing of learnings and promising practices.

  • The goals and results from any learning efforts need to be centered on racial equity. If learning efforts do not center racial equity, they will disregard the defining reason of inequity in our society.

  • Becoming a 21st century learning organization does not happen overnight. This work takes time and energy and investment to build the required capacity.

  • Part of the investment in becoming a 21st century learning organization is about shifting culture. Many organizations, and many individuals, are not used to working in an open, collaborative, learning environment.

  • Digital engagement cannot be successful without a deep understanding of community needs; it must be done in co-creation with partners.

  • Living Cities and other organizations working on digital community learning platforms are ahead of the curve. It is challenging to be supporting digital engagement in an industry that is still struggling to understand what that means.

You can read more about the project and our lessons learned in our new report.

Contributors to this report included several Living Cities staff members, past and present: Joanna Carrasco; Santiago Carrillo; Shanee Helfer; Shannon Jordy; Julienne Kaleta; Hafizah Omar; Alyssa Smaldino; Carmen Smith.

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