September 23, 2012

The Knowledge Hopper: Sharing Learning, Improving Practice

There are lots of ways to stumble on the road to learning, as any of us with a beating heart can attest.     According to Nietzsche, forgetting what one has set out to do is "the commonest form of stupidity.""  We can add to that doing the same thing over and expecting a new outcome.  Re-inventing wheels is yet a third way to slow your own progress.   At some point, we've fallen victim to them all.

By: Katie Smith Milway

There are lots of ways to stumble on the road to learning, as any of us with a beating heart can attest. According to Nietzsche, forgetting what one has set out to do is "the commonest form of stupidity."" We can add to that doing the same thing over and expecting a new outcome. Re-inventing wheels is yet a third way to slow your own progress. At some point, we've fallen victim to them all.

So what are we setting out to do with this blog–The Knowledge Hopper? And what outcome are we hoping for? On a broad level, we hope to become a place where social innovators can help surface the most relevant questions for the sector, share effective practices and identify, too, what's not working in the spirit of collectively advancing learning. On another level, these dialogues will effectively engage readers with–and in the design of–Bridgespan's overall research and learning agenda, informing the insights and tools we develop and share freely to accelerate social impact.

The power of creating a discipline around sharing what we learn, and the art of sharing in a way that's memorable, struck me, a little while back, when I sat in on a session with Jumpstart, an early education nonprofit dedicated to helping pre-schoolers succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Meredith, a student from Emmanuel College in Boston was reading a picture book to a rapt group at the Nazareth Childcare Center in the city's Jamaica Plains neighborhood. Holding up the cover she asked, "Do you know what this book is about?" "Crocodiles!" shouted out one enthusiast. "I thought it was dinosaurs," said another. With post-its on each page as prompts, Meredith guided her listeners through the key messages of the book. The oddity was that these listeners were not the pre-schoolers from child care, but fellow college students. Meredith's reading was a low-tech, rock solid element of sharing know-how among corps members, who debrief together each week after two hours working with pre-schoolers on early literacy and numeracy. "We have the corps members mirror their approaches back to each other," says Paul Leech, Jumpstart's COO. "And then the listeners go around and give the demonstrator one "pro" and one "con" of the approach, so all learn from each other."

This concrete tactic, simple, yet intuitive for Jumpstart's more than 3,500 college students who comprise its teaching corps, is just one of many people-to-people techniques that networks successful at making the most of organizational learning are using to complement the technology they need to keep information flowing around the system.

This points to an issue we are wrestling with on our own learning agenda: After a decade that's brought a cornucopia of technology solutions for capturing and sharing learning–think Yammer, Social Text, Sharepoint, Chatter–the truth is emerging that nothing makes knowledge relevant and sticky like people-to-people interaction. The question then: How do you put technology in the service of people-to-people learning to help a far-flung organization be as smart as the sum of its members?

We think the answer starts with the Nietzsche mandate: understanding what we set out to do, exactly why our organization is capturing and sharing knowledge. The next challenge: how to align people and technology processes to achieve the goal. No doubt, many of us working to accelerate learning throughout our organizations or fields are grappling with this. In the spirit of not reinventing any wheels, I'd love to hear from those of you who have found people and technology processes to keep knowledge flows circulating, and make insights stick and inform practice–in the context of what you are aiming to achieve.

(Katie Smith Milway is a partner with The Bridgespan Group and heads the organization's Knowledge Unit. You can reach her by email at katiesmith.milway@bridgespan.org or tweet @KatieSMilway)


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