IEG recommends an updated strategy for learning and knowledge

Last week we published Learning and Results in World Bank Operations: Toward a New Learning Strategy. Some of you will remember the first report that looked in to how the Bank learns. Reflecting at the time on its launch, I thought there were a couple of remarkable discussion points:

- The centrality of talented people committed to developing and nurturing a learning culture;

- The need to flex the overly-formal system to help promote learning;

- The importance of systemic learning;

- The key role for leaders who are prepared to "walk the walk"€; and, finally,

- The need to provide adequate space, time and incentives for learning.

The new report explored these findings further. The evaluation team spoke to practitioners in the field to deepen our understanding of the Bank’s informal learning and tacit knowledge; mindsets and team effects; incentives; the balance to be achieved between global and local perspectives; adaptiveness; and results focus.

The evaluation builds on the 2015 World Development Report to explore how biases associated with ‘mental models’ – formed, for example, by disciplinary, cultural, and ideological preconceptions – can be reinforced when individuals join teams in which “received wisdom” predominates. The evaluation shows that Bank staff highly value mentoring and learning from peers, which is one way to hand-on knowledge and establish group norms. When trying to promote smart learning, this backdrop needs to be taken into account. Smart teams are characterized by members with diverse backgrounds, having equal voice, and testing ideas (not individuals) to the max. Smart team members have time to be curious, debate and challenge established norms – and staff informed us that “time” is exactly what they need to better promote learning. But, the second phase evaluation raises doubts about how well the Bank is engendering a learning culture: there is a perception that the new structure and accountabilities place a heavy toll on staff time, limiting the opportunity for learning.

Questions also remain about the extent to which the reforms will succeed in increasing incentives for learning and knowledge sharing. Bank staff rely on informal learning (observation, mimicking behaviors) to build tacit knowledge. The interplay between behavioral norms –of both individuals and groups – and institutional incentives also interacts with the way the Bank operates in the field, raising the following questions: how well is global knowledge tailored to local needs, how adaptive is the Bank in real time, and how effectively does it frame and measure results? The evaluation came up with some important insights: the Bank is a great producer of knowledge, but less so a consumer – staff don’t always draw on research or knowledge from outside the Bank. And this does not bode well for the Solutions Bank Group, which involves being the mediator between people from across the globe to broker knowledge to find new solutions.

To meet the needs of its clients the Bank needs to be adaptive, but it is not always as flexible as it needs to be. For example, we identified resistance to early restructuring of poorly performing projects, and we note that piloting problem-driven solutions during the implementation phase can help to fully fit the project to the local context.

In discussing the Bank’s focus on results, the report provides insights into what works, including the benefits of a close relationship with the client, Bank staff experience, and the relationship between tacit knowledge and project design quality. However, it finds the evidence the Bank uses to evaluate projects at completion is often insufficient to demonstrate that the results observed are attributable to the project. It notes that the Bank is beginning to address several shortcomings by taking steps, for example, to make mandatory reference to lessons learned in decision meetings, to collect baseline evidence early, and to rationalize sector indicators.

The report’s key recommendation is for the Bank to develop an updated strategy for learning and knowledge. And, in response to the key findings, the Bank should make optimal use of informal learning and tacit knowledge; adjust institutional incentives to promote learning and development outcomes; balance the focus on global and local knowledge; and, promote adaptiveness.

We invited Peter Senge to give the keynote speech when we launch the evaluation on June 30th. We expect a good crowd and a stimulating discussion because the evaluation’s findings and recommendations are critical to the future effectiveness of the Bank, particularly as we enter into what is a defining era of change in the development landscape; and, because we know how passionate many of you are about learning and delivering results for Bank clients. 


Submitted by Gilbert Oloko on Tue, 06/23/2015 - 01:10

Nice to hear about this move towards reiventing the World Bank (WB) or, at least, towards actualizing its fundamentals on key performance areas such as learning and knowledge management. By the way, according to me, speaking of "transforming development through evaluation" might not be appropriate for development is a transformational and change process by itself.

Submitted by Sven Laurik on Tue, 06/23/2015 - 03:31

If the Bank is really sincere about getting up to speed as a modern learning organization, I would suggest that it hire professional learning leaders and managers from outside of the Bank who will bring wider experiences and perspectives on how to approach learning. I have been working as a organizational learning consultant for 25 years and have seen a similar issue in numerous organizations. Here is one perspective on the root cause -

Submitted by Vinod Nambiar on Wed, 06/24/2015 - 00:49

Well said, institutions are finding or on search to make use of the tacit knowledge. An effective KM strategy with links to all the sources of knowledge creation and dissemination. Very nice to know that, world bank is on that mission. Vinod Nambiar.

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