What is Learning? (The L in PMEL)
So what exactly is learning?
I like the abbreviation PMEL because it illustrates the cycle of planning, monitoring, evaluating, and learning from our work. I've found it's the most thorough process to ensure our programmes are meaningful to the people we work with and impactful.
Learning is the final stage of the loop, though since it is a loop, you could see it as just one of the several phases throughout a project that helps you improve your work and meet the needs of your communities. You can use learning exercises for any of the following:
a one-year project
a longer-term project
a programme (collection of projects with a longer-term goal, such as your organisation's education programme. These are sometimes called portfolios)
your organisation's work as a whole
your strategic approach to target the needs of your communities
your national or regional context
the work of your organisation and partners, or a consortium
your context or field, which includes everyone from the people you work with, to your NGO partners, to your donor (sometimes this is called a situation analysis)
[In these blog posts, I use the word 'project' to talk about your work. But as you can see above, you can use all of these PMEL techniques from short-term projects to your organisation's strategic approach! Just substitute the relevant word for your needs]
Similarly to evaluation, learning exercises and work are often internal, though the results are worth sharing externally. This could be to your donors, other partner organisations, maybe even other NGOs in your context. You may have uncovered important lessons during your project period that are useful for others to know or that could serve as knowledge tools for someone else.
This involves objectively looking at the work you implemented in a given period and assessing its contributions to specific changes. While you are evaluating, you may automatically uncover lessons learned.
These could range in scale, from:
a set of activities should be grander
your strategic approach wasn't quite perfect (but maybe another one was)
an insight such as the need to involve the communities you work with in designing projects
your data gathering and analysis platform should be updated
your donors want to be more engaged in your work
Essentially, you can think about learning as something interesting that came out through your work. By interesting, I really mean that it should be interesting to you and your team. If it happens to be interesting to others, that's great - but this should be an insight that you can use to improve your work, achieve better results, or grow as an organisation.
As the final step in the loop, what you gather while learning should help you to better plan a project the next time. For example, you may have discovered in our example that you should have involved the community in the project's design stage.
To close this loop, maybe a future project could begin with a focus group with your community, where you discuss their needs and design the project based on that.
By adapting the project to what you've learned, you are more likely to design a more impactful project in the future. You may need to repeat these steps many more times, across projects you learn from before finding the magic formula for an impactful set of activities!
If you would like any support with creating a learning culture in your organisation, setting up key learning moments and infrastructure, or developing a framework that both you and your partners can learn from, please get in touch. I would love to work with you and your team to find solutions that fit your needs!