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Organizational Learning

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For information about Mercy Corps' commitment to organizational learning:
Email Anna Young, Mercy Corps' Senior Director of Strategy and Learning, at ayoung@mercycorps.org

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Mercy Corps is committed to being a learning organization. Over the past five years we have invested in three areas of the agency — team development, information management and knowledge generation and sharing — to improve our staff effectiveness and program results.

Mercy Corps is committed to being a learning organization in order to:

• Become more effective in achieving its mission by understanding and applying recommended practices;
• Work efficiently and achieve meaningful impact enabled by easy access to information resources and communities of practice;
• Participate as a leader in industry-wide innovative thinking by developing, documenting and disseminating lessons learned, new strategies and recommended practices; and
• Attract, develop and retain outstanding leaders who promote learning across the organization

Our approach has been heavily influenced by Peter Senge’s instrumental work, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (1994) as well as Bruce Britton’s “Learning for Change: Principles and Practices of Learning Organizations” (2002), which is targeted at development organizations like ours.

Over the past five years we have invested in three areas of the agency — team development, information management and knowledge generation and sharing — to improve our staff effectiveness and program results. Below are the major initiatives we have undertaken.

Monitoring and Evaluation
Mercy Corps’ Design, Monitoring and Evaluation (DM&E) initiative has been underway since 2003. The 100-plus Mercy Corps staff working full or part-time on DM&E challenges in the field are an integral part of this initiative. In rapidly changing environments, monitoring the results of our programs allows teams to build on strengths and make course corrections where necessary. The core philosophical approach underpinning this initiative is that DM&E should be led, tailored and driven by our country offices.

For example, a baseline study in Indonesia for a child nutrition project that was intended to support school lunches actually found that intestinal worms causing anemia were the leading cause of malnutrition. Based on this information, the project changed course and began giving deworming tablets to combat the anemia. An evaluation showed that this intervention was dramatically decreasing malnutrition. We advocated for the government of Indonesia to adopt the program, which has since been rolled out countrywide.

University Partnerships
Innovative relationships with leading universities provide Mercy Corps with access to a wealth of expertise, research and current thinking that supports excellence in our field programs. Universities have seconded faculty with specialized skills and knowledge to assist our programs and offer education opportunities and scholarships to Mercy Corps staff and partners.

To date we have partnered to place leading field practitioners in academic environments where they teach, research and document learning. Participating universities include Harvard, Yale, Edinburgh, Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington. In addition, universities have assisted our field operations by providing specific expertise -- for example, Oregon State University provided agricultural economics experts for our Nepal program.

In 2008, Mercy Corps’ graduate internships program placed over 40 interns in 30 field offices around the world. Interns carried out important tasks supporting monitoring and evaluation, assessments in public health and agriculture and many other fields.

Staff Development
Mercy Corps aims to inspire our teams to apply innovation and social entrepreneurship to solve the most critical problems facing the communities we serve. We strive to attract, retain and develop team members who serve as the engine to achieving this goal. To assist new hires with orientation to the agency, Mercy Corps has developed e-learning courses that are available to team members worldwide.

In addition to training, we provide staff with opportunities to serve in various functions and regions through special assignments and temporary postings elsewhere in the world. All staff are encouraged to spend five percent of their time on learning.

Learning From Each Other
In the pressure of rapid implementation of programs in emergency and transitional environments, one can forget to reflect on program successes and weakness. Our commitment to capturing learning through field studies, lessons learned, workshops, tool development and journal articles aims to make it easier to transfer knowledge internally and share it with our external colleagues.

For example, in the summer of 2008, we conducted an open-ended inquiry regarding the most significant changes in terms of stability and recovery since Kosovo’s active conflict in the late 1990s. Participants from 13 diverse communities identified the issues, actors and approaches that have had the greatest impact on these changes. Other examples are available on our website.

Information Management
Information management entails acquiring, organizing, retrieving, delivering and maintaining information -- from multiple sources, to multiple audiences. Mercy Corps has a variety of internal sources of information and technology platforms to enable effective collaboration. As a learning organization, we work to make information readily available to our worldwide staff (even when Internet access is unreliable, as is the case in many of our field offices) by using a variety of print and electronic media.

Click here to download our Office In A Box for tools and best-practices guidelines in operations management.

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