When I came to Living Cities four years ago, my goal was to apply design thinking and process to the organization’s research, communications, and content efforts. I started by interviewing team leads about how they were collecting lessons from our work in cities, and how those lessons were being translated into usable research and thought leadership for people in our network and beyond. Often, when I asked about existing knowledge plans or content strategies, I got a chuckle. They didn’t exist. Many teams were in the middle of overseeing huge initiatives in multiple cities and didn’t have the time or capacity to think strategically about how to gather and share lessons from their work. Living Cities was of course producing content, but it wasn’t always tightly connected to what we were learning through our programs.
Today, though, there are multiple mechanisms to support teams’ knowledge and communications efforts. All teams, including those focused on internal operations, have a learning agenda and content strategy plan in place and regularly “make meaning” of the applied research going on locally across the U.S and within the organization, in service of closing racial income and wealth gaps.
How did we go from an inconsistent practice of team learning and communications to a robust, coordinated effort to share what we know? As part of a refined process to connect learning and communications at Living Cities, we established a new role – learning liaisons – to hold and manage the process, team by team. In this blog post, I hope to share what’s special about the learning liaisons and how this informal team of six has been able to infuse learning and content strategy across all levels of the organization.
When Living Cities got serious about building rigor into our learning processes, and connecting that learning to our communications output, it became very clear very fast that we needed people on teams to “hold” those processes: to facilitate conversations about what teams were learning, to report back to the organization for measurement and evaluation purposes, and to be responsible for translating resulting lessons into content that’s insightful and useful for public sector and nonprofit practitioners who, like us, are working to close racial gaps.
The consequence of our efforts has been increased output and more nuanced thought leadership from all levels of the organization. It’s the way we’re able to produce over 150 discrete pieces of content a year, with a staff of 35.
So, how did we create and support this role?
Clearly define the role and its responsibilities
First, we needed to document the learning liaison role and what staff in this position were expected to do, both on their teams and as part of the larger, organization-level learning, communications, and results practice. Just as team leads and project managers have established roles with defined expectations, learning liaisons had a documented job description; staff who were interested in the role were assigned to individual teams. Additionally, the Learning, Storytelling and Results team created learning liaison-specific professional objectives that could be plugged into personal development plans and used to evaluate progress on an annual basis.
Give people time to do their jobs and treat them like a team
Next, learning liaisons were allocated time not only to their assigned project teams, but also to the Learning, Storytelling and Results team, which oversees Living Cities’ learning, communications and performance evaluation functions. This split team allocation allows learning liaisons the time to perform the programmatic functions of their role on their individual teams, and still come together regularly to share their knowledge with the other learning liaisons. They’re also able to refine our learning and communications processes and discuss what’s working or not – together.
Create training opportunities to build skills and competencies
Because we treat learning liaisons like a team, with regular opportunities to meet and compare notes, we create the space for the learning liaisons to build their research and communications skills and for Learning, Storytelling and Results staff to share relevant best practices. We ask learning liaisons each year what capacities they’re interested in growing and arrange related training. We onboard new learning liaisons as if they’re starting their job fresh. And we give them the tools, templates and resources to do the job.
Make it as easy as possible to do the job
Which brings me to a key component of the learning liaison work. The Learning, Storytelling and Results team believes in making it as easy as possible for learning liaisons to do their jobs. To that end, we provide meeting agendas that allow learning liaisons to lead conversations that produce lessons learned and develop team-level content strategies with a racial equity lens. We create blank “scorecards” that enable learning liaisons and their teams to track their progress. We have developed content strategy templates through which teams can plug in their own content and communications tactics for the year.
None of this work has been fast or easy. Successful execution of the learning liaison role requires the right tools and processes as well as real cultural change in the organization that prioritizes learning and communications. That comes from both top-down and down-up leadership. It’s also the result of celebrating wins and keeping all staff up to date on the team’s progress. But what we’ve seen is that the work is worth it.
The consequence of our efforts has been increased output and more nuanced thought leadership from all levels of the organization. It’s the way we’re able to produce over 150 discrete pieces of content a year, with a staff of 35. And it’s the way we can share with the philanthropic, capital, non-profit and public sector fields interesting practices to close income and wealth gaps, to build racial equity and inclusion competency at the individual and institutional levels, and to operationalize racial equity – in service of real-world results.