Creating a Culture of Organizational Learning at Arcus

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Arcus’ strategic approach to effecting change in the world has long emphasized continuous improvement as necessary to impactful and responsible funding and field engagement. Arcus, like most organizations, came to understand that the practice of learning from successes and failures and then applying those insights to subsequent work is easier said than done. We needed a systematic approach to learning with concrete objectives and consistent processes to support it. As a result, Arcus implemented a formalized initiative to integrate and strengthen organizational learning across the foundation—to establish a sustainable learning culture.

Here, Lia Parifax, Arcus’ director of executive initiatives, reflects on what organizational learning means to Arcus, how Arcus created a holistic approach to learning across the foundation, and why we expect that approach to strengthen our impact and reinforce our accountability with partners.

Arcus defines organizational learning as “the strategic process of identifying, analyzing, and using relevant inputs to enhance our knowledge and behaviors, which enables us to deliver impact and perform effectively.” Simply put: if we incorporate what we learn, we get better at what we do. However, learning is a complex process, often occurring implicitly and sometimes even overlooked.

But, when pursued intentionally, it helps us understand how our strategies and practices are working under different conditions and fuels our ability to adapt. In 2018, Arcus engaged in an organization-wide process to identify what we wanted to achieve with our learning. We concluded that learning should enhance our thinking and decisions; increase efficiency; allow us to contribute insight externally to strengthen collective knowledge and action; and enable trusting, positive relationships with our partners. Our goal was to make learning from and with one another—both internally and with external partners—customary and constructive.

We defined three “pillars” of work necessary to achieve this:
  • learning culture
  • monitoring and evaluation
  • knowledge management

It is important to note that these pillars are not mutually exclusive; they power a learning cycle where teams establish purpose before action, hypothesize which approaches will be effective, execute plans, document what they learn from the results, and apply that insight to the next project. At Arcus, we want that cycle to occur at all levels and apply to all matters of decision-making; from daily activities and tasks (for example, reflecting on how a conversation went with a grantee and what was learned for the future), to the highest orders of strategy development and refinement (for example, how our grantmaking can successfully influence human attitudes and behaviors).

To undertake the work, we defined five-year objectives and annual outcomes for each pillar, while recognizing their fundamental interconnectedness. Across all three, we have honed skills and adopted practices and routines that have become integral to the way we conduct our work. For example:

  • Our teams habitually engage in before- and after-action reviews—structured planning and debrief discussions about what it will take for us to be successful and what variables drove the strengths and limitations of a project.
  • We embed learning questions into our annual work plans so that our priorities for learning precede and inform our plans for action. We make the chronology and sequencing of learning explicit so we’re able to apply insight to our plans.
  • Program teams develop learning agendas for each grantee site visit. These agendas help clarify Arcus’ purpose in visiting a grantee and the experiences and conversations we should be having in situ to address organizational knowledge gaps and priorities. They also help us live by values of inclusion and equity, and ensure we are respectful of a grantee’s time and resources on site.
  • We convene grantees and other funders to engage in shared learning. From what it takes to build capacity to what we know about past failures, our program teams unpack complex issues affecting our work and make tacit knowledge explicit in community with key partners.
  • Both the Great Apes & Gibbons and Social Justice Programs, along with Arcus’ supporting functions, assess the impact and performance of their work and the assumptions underlying their strategies, including grantee perception as indicators of specific performance goals.
  • Arcus has also invested in ensuring that knowledge (and the data and information that make it possible) can be gathered, stored, accessed, and shared internally and externally. We have provided guidance to staff about how to know what knowledge is needed, potentially useful to Arcus, and should be collected, stored, and made explicit.

As the foundation embarks on its third decade amid profound external volatility and mission threats, the most valuable benefit of self-aware and ritual-based learning is wisdom—the integrated view of cumulative knowledge synthesized over time. That view is enabled by the groundwork Arcus has established to-date; but we must be ever capable of holding the expanding density and breadth of insights necessary for informed adaptation and strategic calibration.

Our mission positions us in multiple sectors and disciplines with compounding complexities and opportunities; we are committed to learning with humility and curiosity from our own work and that of others, and to contributing our due share of wisdom where and when possible.