Sharing experience and learning together

CommunicationLearning Reviews

by Doug Reeler

The aim of Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) is to help develop the capacity of community-based organisations working in development and social transformation in southern and east Africa.

For CDRA, learning is a main activity, rather than an addition to our work. We believe it is important to set aside regular, dedicated time for learning. Each month, all of our field staff take a week-long break from fieldwork to participate in a ‘home week’. During this week, we meet to reflect on our work and on the previous few weeks in the field. We use this time to share experience, learn from each other, improve our practice, plan or re-plan, adjust our strategy, build relationships, and be refreshed and re-inspired for our work.

Time well spent

The balance of activities means that half of the week is spent learning about our fieldwork and practice, and the other half is focused on organisational maintenance, work planning, business and staffing issues. Taking time to focus on learning means that the business and strategy decision-making meetings are better informed, less complicated, less time-consuming, and more fulfilling.

The ‘home week’ creates and renews two-way learning relationships between staff. It builds trust and understanding, provides accountability and so improves our work. This process is the basis of CDRA, and is how we maintain and develop our organisation. It is not a static process, but changes as we change, to ensure a programme that challenges, stretches and motivates us.

When asked to explain why we set aside so much of our time for reflection on our work, we respond that the work we are involved in is complex, tiring and stressful. The learning process helps us to work better and use our time more productively. Our personal experiences of other organisations have been of many tired, stressed individuals working separately from one another. This leads to poor relationships and means people repeat mistakes. We find that spending a ‘home week’ together each month improves the quality of our work, and strengthens our relationships. It prepares us for three clear weeks of fieldwork, without any business meetings. It gives us renewed and clearer focus and always brings lots of new ideas and resources to enrich our practice. Most of the ideas in our organisation have come from the ‘home week’, which shows how valuable it is.

Documenting our work

Many organisations insist on the importance of documentation, capturing learning and experience for future reference. However, in reality many reports are saved, filed away and never actually read. At CDRA we value the process of writing. On the Monday afternoon of ‘home week’ there is space to write a personal, reflective account of our recent work experience. The report is short (two or three pages), honest, informal and written in the first person, so the focus is not just on what we did, but our thoughts, feelings, questions and learning from the experience. On the Wednesday we read each other’s reports and write down our responses, thoughts and questions. Then we come together to discuss these. We use the learning from that discussion as the basis for a monthly update on our website. The reflective reports are filed away for reference, but their purpose has already been achieved in what we have learned together through discussion.

Doug Reeler, PO Box 221, Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa 7915. Email: info@cdra.org.za Website: www.cdra.org.za


A ‘home week’ pattern

The structure of the ‘home week’ is flexible, but it often follows this pattern:

■ MONDAY
Staff breakfast Eating together provides a relaxed social time when staff can share what has been happening over the past month.
Creative session We invite an artist to work with us, over a few monthly sessions, to use creative processes (such as painting, drawing, clay sculpting, dance, story telling or drumming) to explore and learn from. This lively session helps team-building and develops creativity, lateral thinking and innovation.
Report writing In the afternoon we document our work by writing a reflective report on the previous month.

■ TUESDAY
Staff meeting Dealing with the operational issues of the organisation. The field staff meet to respond to the requests received in the last month and to look at new opportunities. Each meeting is chaired by a different member of staff.

■ WEDNESDAY
Report feedback The day is dedicated to reading each other’s reflective reports written on Monday, and giving feedback. The purpose is to learn from our own and each other’s practice and to help us become accountable to each other.

■ THURSDAY
Varied agenda Can include writing case studies, discussing strategy, sharing tools or methods, designing a new course or discussing a difficult workshop that someone is going to facilitate. Every few months we have sessions which focus on personal development. These help us to ensure we maintain a balance between our personal and professional lives, to review personal development plans and work through any issues we are struggling with individually. Each person chooses their own supervisor for this.

■ FRIDAY

Conclusion Meetings are held to draw together all of the issues raised in the week, and for teams to discuss joint internal or external projects.