In this first post in a multi-part series, members of our Learning, Storytelling and Results team describe how uniting these three functions has not only streamlined the process of learning but also improved how Living Cities’ communicates about lessons learned — for maximum impact.
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.