Emergent Learning does work. Many foundation people like the big thoughts. Emergent Learning helps those people come back to earth. It reconnects the  theory and the practice. It stretches you and then brings you back to what you have to do next. So you don't feel like you've wasted time learning.

-- Roberto Cremonini

Research & Publications


Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation

The terms “adaptive” and “emergent” are beginning to be used, often interchangeably, to describe strategies by which funders can tackle complexity. In this article, we propose distinguishing between the two and explore how the research into complexity can inform philanthropic practice. While approaches like systems mapping, scenario planning, and appreciative inquiry have been put forward as useful approaches to expanding perspectives and seeing whole systems, the field needs a framework for going beyond these planning tools in order to actually create the conditions in which emergence can happen – by expanding agency beyond the walls of the funder, distinguishing between goals and strategies, encouraging experimentation around strategies, and supporting whole-system learning. In this article, we offer Emergent Learning as a framework to support the creation of these conditions and describe how the tools help make thinking visible and support real-time and peer learning.


A Compass in the Woods: Learning through Grantmaking to Improve Impact
This research into the state of philanthropic learning finds that foundations over-invest in stand-alone learning activities and publish "lessons learned" at the end of a program. They under-invest in creating the links that result in true, continuous learning through their grantmaking.


Lessons (Not Yet) Learned

Solutions to complex social problems remain elusive; at the same time, philanthropy is facing growing pressure to account for its tax-free dollars; to demonstrate, replicate, and scale success; and to be transparent about failed social investments. Learning from failure requires changing deeply rooted habits of thinking, decision-making, and interacting. The authors recommend steps that foundations and their nonprofit partners could take to learn from failed social investments. In Foundation Review, volume 3, Numbers 1-2, 2011, pp 97-109.


Mistakes to Success Roadmap
Discussing, analyzing and learning from failure should be a common practice that can strengthen the work of all organizations. After reading Mistakes to Success: Learning and Adapting When Things Go Wrong, use the Roadmap's simple set of tools to get started, build the habit and sustain a learning culture that includes learning from failure. Co-authored by Marilyn Darling, Robert Giloth and Colin Austin. 2011.


Growing Knowledge Together: Using Emergent Learning and EL Maps for Better Results

How do you bring great minds together around complex challenges? Former SoL researcher-consultants Marilyn Darling and Charles Perry recognized that groups need a method in order to effectively capture learning that occurs over multiple events. EL Maps [now called EL Tables] offer a simple and powerful approach to recognize patterns and come up with systemic solutions. As bringing bright people together can be like "herding cats," the EL Map guides groups through iterative rounds of action and thinking towards actionable theory that meets the test of application grounded in real context. In Reflections - The SoL Journal on Knowledge, Learning and Change, volume 8, 2007.


Learning in the Thick of It
On the face of it, the After Action Review is the simplest of practices. A leader gathers the team after a significant action, compares what they intended and actually achieved, and asks what they want to sustain and improve going forward. What could be simpler? Marilyn Darling, Charles Perry and Joe Moore describe the AAR practices of a nimble, winning organization,the U.S. Army's Opposing Force. They then review the experiences of a range of companies attempting to build "Lessons Learned." Key insight: Companies that succeeded did not conduct check-box AARs - they shifted their thinking so that AAR cycles became the way they tied together leading, learning and execution. Harvard Business Review, July 2005.




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