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Navigating the urgency of collective learning in systems change

Brenna Atnikov
May, 2024


Reprinted with permission from The School of Systems Change.

Brenna Atnikov explores what it takes to learn collectively and effectively, emphasizing the L in MEL. She dives into the urgency of developing collective learning to address the complex challenges that lie ahead. This thought piece is an output of the MEL in Systems Change Inquiry Group, hosted by the School of System Change in 2023.

Earlier this year, the School of System Change welcomed me into its MEL Inquiry Group. It represents an exciting opportunity to be in conversation with those dedicated to understanding the role of Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) in system change. As a devoted systems thinker and change maker, I've always been deeply intrigued by this topic. However, what profoundly stood out during our discussions is my core interest within MEL: it's not primarily in the 'M' or 'E' but rather in the 'L' - Learning.

The passion for learning

Through our dialogues and investigations, I've come to realize that my interest with MEL is driven by a natural learning orientation. I've been gifted with an insatiable curiosity, a perpetual thirst for understanding, connecting, and exploring. A supervisor once coined me as "insatiably curious" in graduate school and gently encouraged me to select a specific area of focus. Fortunately, I found my way to Reos Partners, an environment where my insatiable curiosity is not a liability but rather a strength.

Here, my diverse interests span from organizational strategy to indigenous-led conservation, climate action, and health equity, among numerous other fields. My brain constantly weaves disparate pieces of information together, finding patterns, connections, and opportunities that fuel my professional journey and which are needed when taking a systemic approach to change.

Honing in on collective learning

Our conversations in the MEL Inquiry Group have clarified just how important I believe learning is for systemic change. I’m struck by the fact that we have spoken little of the “M” or the “E”, but rather seem to be most curious about collective learning as a key way to enable and facilitate system change. Furthermore, I'm increasingly clear that my primary interest extends beyond MEL as a defined methodology but delves deeper into the realm of collective learning and its practical application. We, as a species, are inherently social creatures, and our survival hinges upon our ability to learn collectively and apply that learning.

As I am beginning to understand it, collective learning for systems change is a collaborative process wherein diverse stakeholders engage in shared knowledge acquisition, application, and adaptation to foster transformative shifts in complex systems. It involves the pooling of insights from various perspectives to build a comprehensive understanding of interconnected challenges and opportunities. Applied through participatory dialogue, interdisciplinary collaboration, and inclusive decision-making, collective learning enhances adaptive capacities. Stakeholders collectively experiment with innovative approaches, adapt strategies based on feedback, and drive systemic change. This approach acknowledges the interdependence of components within a system, utilizing the collective intelligence of participants to navigate complexities and cultivate sustainable solutions, thereby fostering resilient and adaptable systems.

The question that keeps me up at night is whether we are harnessing the full potential of collective learning in the face of the challenges we collectively confront.


The urgency of collective learning

The present times are laden with urgent concerns such as climate change, social justice, conflict and war, and other global crises. It's these very challenges that fuel my apprehension. I worry that we are not learning at the scale, depth, breadth, and speed required to address challenges.

In other words, our current approach to learning may not be comprehensive or extensive enough to effectively tackle complex and interconnected problems. In this context, learning at scale implies a need for broader reach, deeper understanding, wider coverage, and faster adaptation in the face of change within complex-adaptive systems. It emphasizes the importance of not only expanding the quantity of learning but also enhancing its quality, scope, and pace to adequately respond to the challenges presented by intricate and interrelated issues.

The ability to learn collectively, deeply, extensively, and swiftly is of paramount importance as we navigate the turbulent waters of the challenges before us.

Overcoming the barriers to collective learning

As I venture further into my journey with the Inquiry Group, I find myself at a crossroads. Admittedly, and somewhat surprisingly, I'm experiencing deflation, confusion, and concern. These emotions tie back to my fundamental question: how can we learn at scale, deep enough, far-reaching enough, and quickly enough to confront the crises that loom before us?

Power, rank, and privilege stand out as formidable structural barriers that obstruct our path toward collective learning. These barriers, deeply entrenched in power dynamics, create formidable obstacles that hinder the application of knowledge and prevent us from scaling our efforts for transformation.

Addressing these structural barriers and reshaping the power dynamics within our systems is the critical step toward enabling the kind of collective learning that can drive meaningful change. However, it's easier said than done. These issues are deeply ingrained in our societies, institutions, and behaviors, making them resistant to change.

To overcome these barriers and promote collective learning, it's crucial to cultivate inclusive, equitable, and participatory learning environments. This process begins with questioning power dynamics and inequalities that impede collective learning. When examining power dynamics, it's important to ask: Who holds decision-making authority? Whose voices are amplified or marginalized? How is information controlled and shared? Additionally, critical questions about collective learning involve asking: Who do we primarily learn from, and whose knowledge is considered valuable? Who decides the criteria for determining valuable knowledge in our learning processes? Asking these questions fosters awareness and helps dismantle barriers that hinder collaborative and equitable learning.

In addition, the eagerness to jump to solutions acts as a barrier to collective learning by bypassing crucial phases of exploration, reflection, and shared understanding. This desire for immediate answers stifles the iterative, adaptive processes integral to collective learning, hindering the development of comprehensive insights. In the rush to solutions, diverse perspectives may be overlooked, limiting the richness of collaborative knowledge. This impatience inhibits the collective capacity to address complex challenges effectively, as the emphasis shifts from in-depth learning to quick fixes. Overcoming this barrier involves recognizing that sustained impact requires a patient, collaborative approach that prioritizes understanding and adaptation over rapid, isolated solutions.

Final thoughts

The journey through the MEL Inquiry Group has not provided all the answers, but it has equipped me with a fresh perspective, a deeper understanding of the challenges we face, and the recognition that the quest for collective learning is the most critical endeavor of our time. As we continue to explore the intricacies of MEL in systems change, let us remain committed to overcoming the structural barriers and inequalities that stand in the way of harnessing the full potential of collective learning. Our ability to learn collectively and effectively is our most potent weapon against the complex challenges that lie ahead, and it's a path that we must navigate with care, compassion, and determination.

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