The famous "elephant in the room": we all want to learn from our own experiences, but at the cost of critical self-evaluation?

Earlier this year, the Independent Evaluation Group presented awards to 17 teams across the World Bank Group for their exemplary work in preparing quality self-evaluations for their projects. The projects ranged from country strategies and advisory services to investment and lending operations.

For many organizations, not just the World Bank Group, self-evaluation tends to be the "elephant in the room" - the one thing that everyone recognizes as a problem, but no one wants to name.

So, what stops professionals from learning from their own experiences and from one another?  How can institutions get past the stigma of self-evaluation?

The right incentives are critical. 

To promote self-evaluation, an organization must have clear, measureable institutional goals and a well-articulated strategic direction. As the World Bank Group President, Jim Kim, so eloquently put it recently, "You have to be serious about asking yourself the hardest question: Is what we're doing leading us to the goals that we have set? We are the first generation in the history of humanity to be able to think about ending extreme poverty. That is such a compelling goal that we have to be willing to be as self-critical as we need to be to make sure we are on the right path."

Jim Kim's words are reflected in the 2013 World Bank Group strategy, which promotes a change in behaviors by embracing candid self-evaluation, promoting accountability and learning, and creating the imperative for teams to make mid-course corrections. This is particularly needed when moving the institution from a project mentality towards a development solutions culture. To do so the Bank is tracking two critical indicators - the percentage of projects where staff proactively engage in solving problems, and by measuring the level of candor in internal reporting systems - that is, whether problems are brought up in a timely way and corrected.

Tracking these indicators should provide an opportunity for the World Bank to look back at a wealth of experience and reflect on what they mean for the future. In particular, they should help make mid-course corrections to ensure projects are put back on a path to success as soon as they veer off it. When done well, self-evaluation can be the spark that fosters learning, continuous improvement and excellence.

But, here is where we find the conundrum lies: as important as the right incentives are, they are not as easy to put in place. A recent IEG evaluation, Learning and Results in World Bank Lending: Towards a New Learning Strategy illustrated this point starkly. The evaluation found that in general, staff at the World Bank perceive the lack of institutional incentives as one of the biggest problems for learning and knowledge sharing at the Bank. In many organizations, including the World Bank Group, there are simply too many institutional incentives stacked against critical reflection. 

For instance, as our evaluation showed, the system of sharing tacit knowledge - like mentoring, hand-over procedures, and peer review processes - needs rejuvenation. Also, there is too little emphasis on capturing and sharing tacit knowledge. Rewarding a culture of learning and knowledge sharing requires rewards, the rewards World Bank Group professionals draw from supporting their clients, and professional recognition by the Institutions, their supervisors and peers. 

The IEG Good Practice Awards play a role in this system of recognizing and rewarding behaviors. Would an IEG Award for learning and knowledge sharing create the recognition to incentivize behaviors and help overcome hurdles to learning and sharing knowledge? Share your views below.

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