What is an Organizational Learning Plan? Why Do You Need One?

  • In this blog series, we are focusing on organizational learning plans within a relatively small organization (<200 staff). We think the information here will be relevant to larger organizations, but creating an organizational learning plan across an agency with hundreds or even thousands of employees is a different kind of effort. We are also steeped in the international development field, specifically working with USAID; therefore, our language and reference points match that experience.
  • By “learning” we are referring to both operational learning and strategic learning. Operational learning focuses on how the work is being carried out and informs decisions about how we do our work in the day-to-day, while strategic learning uses data and insights to inform decision-making about longer-term strategies (for more on strategic learning, see this piece from the Center for Evaluation Innovation).
  • What do we need to know in order to be effective and enlightened?
  • How will we create, acquire, analyze, share, and use our knowledge?
  • Who will do what to ensure we create, acquire, analyze, share, and use our knowledge?
  • How will we resource and reinforce these practices within our organization?
  • “Effective” typically means your organization learns things that help it fix immediate challenges. It asks, “are we doing things RIGHT?” This question is most closely associated with operational learning. It’s not always asking whether what you’re doing is even the right thing to do, it’s asking how can we do the thing we are doing better. This is also referred to as single loop learning. Single loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. It receives information and can take corrective action to make adjustments.
  • “Enlightened” means that your organization can determine whether it is doing the right things and therefore take action accordingly. It asks, “Are we doing the RIGHT THINGS?” This is also referred to as double loop learning and is more closely associated with strategic learning. Single loop is learning that keeps you on track to pre-set goals (e.g. keep the temperature at 75). Double loop is learning that allows space for reflecting on whether your goals are the right one (e.g. maybe I can stay warm by putting a sweater on).
  • Continuous Improvement: “‘Learning matters because it empowers us all to make better development decisions and achieve greater impact.’” This is, hands down, the most important reason why learning matters.
  • Efficiency: “If we come to realize, only years later, that we reinvented a wheel that already existed and failed to function, how much time, energy, and money could we have been saving and putting towards something with greater promise?”
  • Engagement: “…wouldn’t we be a happier and more engaged workforce if we spent more time grappling with the tough questions and strengthening our discipline?”
  • Humility: “If we recognize that there is so much we have yet to understand about the contexts in which we work, how change happens, and how best to go about achieving results, we see a clear need for institutionalizing curiosity in our organizations.”
  1. Intentional by outlining what you are going to do
  2. Systematic by outlining how you are going to do it
  3. Resourced by outlining what you need to make it happen
  1. Global Integrity’s Plan
  2. Open Contracting Partnership’s Plan
  3. USAID LEARN’s Plan
  4. FSG’s Facilitating Intentional Group Learning
  5. Public Profit’s Dabbling in the Data
  6. USAID/Vietnam Learns AMELP
  7. Emergent Learning and EL Maps
  1. Before Action Reviews — the forgotten cousin of the After Action Review! This is a great exercise before an activity, especially if a lot of time has passed since the AAR to solidify the learning and ensure it gets incorporated into the new activity.
  2. Learning Book Clubs — reading something (a short article, blog, or book) and discussing it as a team. This allows your team to make meaning of what you read together and discuss important implications for your work.
  3. Users Experience Fish Bowls — having team members reflect on a topic, for example, a learning question, and having the rest of the team observe from the outside. You can switch team members in and out. The purpose of this exercise is to learn through listening to others’ thought processes.
  4. Outcome Harvesting Learning Journals — Encouraging staff to utilize outcome learning journals to document their perspectives on the outcomes they are observing.
  5. Reflection Fridays — Dedicating time, perhaps the last Friday of every month, to reflect on what you are learning in service of your theory of change and broader strategy as a team.
  6. Quarterly Review — a great methodology to discuss how things are going, reflect as a team on emerging lessons and challenges, and to strategize on how you can strengthen your effectiveness in the months to come. To increase engagement, try using fun and games.
  7. What? So What? Now What? — A methodology that encourages participants to reflect together and share new insights. It is great for guiding decision making.
  8. “How Might We…” Statements — A user-centered design technique that can be applied in teams to encourage generative learning. It helps us to pause and explore different solutions instead of just jumping to the most familiar one when presented with a problem.
  9. Strategic Decision Making Process Flow — Ian David Moss created this flow to help break down decisions to more holistically account for what we know. In this post, he includes the “wrap around model” to draw out decision making into a multi-step process.
  10. “I Like, I Wish, I Wonder” — A super simple methodology to guide learning group sessions focused on generating actionable insights.
  11. Strategy Triage ToolA simple five-square matrix useful for reflecting on strategic learning.
  12. Six Hats Reflection Tool — A facilitated exercise that encourages teams to acknowledge their layered experiences together. This is a great tool for productively engaging and releasing emotions.



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Global Knowledge Initiative

Global Knowledge Initiative


Our mission is to activate collaborative networks globally to deliver innovative solutions that build more resilient systems.