Learning Pods

Learning Pods is a road map to build a community of practice for knowledge around systems thinking. With UNDP and their City Experiment Fund initiative, we explored continued learning in country offices for growing organisational capability by a series of tools and interventions to embed a learning infrastructure within internal programmes.

Aditi Soni
Richard Larsen
Deepu James
Building capability to innovate in complexity
UNDP supports and drives development in complex systems across the world. And now they’re rethinking the way they innovate and implement change. That means building capability from the bottom by leading their Country Offices through new systems thinking and non-traditional innovation methods that they can take forward into their practice. And when UNDP tries to change something as fundamental as the way they innovate, it’s the people doing the work on the ground — building relationships, making things happen — that have to change how they think and plan for the future. Therefore, we worked with this organisation’s initiative called the City Experiment Fund to start small and help them build an efficient learning infrastructure for systems thinking capabilities.
Goals and Challenges

CEF’s goal is to build capability in its participants so it can be transferred and used in the wider organisation. But people enter the programme with different perspectives and mindsets, which can cause challenges in how they interact with it.

So the transfer of capability can’t happen without paying attention to how people are learning and while these challenges remain, an effective learning experience is unlikely. Making it difficult to carry anything forward.

It's this space in the middle where the opportunity lies. The space where the knowledge being taught is received, processed and experienced as learning.

Our vision for the near future: A community of practice

CEF strives to teach new methods, but there is less focus on reliable ways for people to learn what is taught.
Experts deliver expertise, but once imparted it can disappear quite quickly. Participants worry about being dependent on the programme as a central hub for guidance.

So some questions are: How can we keep knowledge in the system and decentralise its access amongst immediate stakeholders? Is there a more efficient way to distribute learning? Can we better retain learning experiences by keeping them in the system, rather than letting them disappear?

Using people in the programme as a resource we envision a people-powered community to support participants in learning together beyond programmes like CEF.

A road map for the 'now': Series of learning interventions

As part of a roadmap to reach this vision we’ve devised interventions to be implemented in the CEF process:
Recommendations to establish learning atmospheres. Systems thinking is already uncomfortable so, to prepare the environment, these help to set effective atmospheres to ease participants into the process.
A set of tools to be used by the programme manager to help participants to prepare to learn, and record and reflect on what they learn. From understanding mindsets to navigating barriers.
Facilitation guidelines and templates for programme managers to hold effective group sharing sessions so that unstructured conversation spaces can foster sharing habits and deliver insight and feedback.

We learned that sharing doesn’t happen straight away. It’s a habit that needs to be built into a group, and shared learning needs to start within the programme. Providing programme managers with the means to facilitate these activities is key to building these habits.

The impact of learning and the value we bring

The impact of effective learning is in its successful application. But more importantly it’s in the reduced need for support, and the ability to adjust learning to context.
An individual or team that has learned effectively has agency in their own work and are able to mobilise resources on their own.
In the context of innovation in international development the impact of these interventions are to build autonomy and agency into the participants of learning programmes like CEF, so they can attract funding for their work and accelerate their impact. Ultimately increasing capability for effective change across the UNDP, and any organisation in which effective learning infrastructure is implemented.


From everyone we spoke to and all the insight we gained throughout this project, there are 3 things that stood out the most when considering designing for systemic capabilities:
You can have a plan going in but it rarely turns out how you wanted. So how do you design for improvisation, rather than implementation?
How to allow each programme (e.g. CEF) to make the process their own and use a structure that allows them to continuously improve?
How do you respect the knowledge in the room, rather than using people as empty vessels to fill with your new systems thinking knowledge?

Even though what we’ve introduced is small scale for now, the intention is for the effects to add up over time to create the right conditions for that bigger vision of capability building within UNDP, for them to thrive while thinking out of the box.

special thanks

A big thank you to our project tutor Marta Ferreira de Sá, for many months of insightful and practical advice. And to Justyna Krol, Bas Leurs, and all those at the UNDP who informed our thinking along the way. Also to external experts Luke Roberts and Noel Hatch for sharing their valuable time and thoughts with us.

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