John David Smith of Learning Alliances and Nancy White of Full Circle are experts in institutionalizing learning at organizations and authors of Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities.

Earlier this year, Administrator Shah launched USAID’s new Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance within the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. The Center is designed to become a global resource for evidence-based research, closely measuring and evaluating what works best in advancing democracy, human rights and governance and sharing best practices with the international development community.  This learning agenda will be a focus of USAID’s upcoming Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Forum (June 21-22) and Workshop (June 25-27).

Institutionalizing learning in its activities means that USAID is making learning an everyday activity that permeates the organization. It is a way for the Agency to respond to change and learn quickly, leveraging staff and their knowledge. More mobile and more distributed staff using new technologies give us strikingly new opportunities to gather, interact and learn from each other in novel ways. Traditional organizational structures need to be augmented by more informal and fluid structures, which is why USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance is focusing on building a learning agenda.  A critical component of this agenda includes building “communities of practice” and leveraging technology in our work.

What are communities of practice? Communities of practice are groups of people who interact over time on a regular basis to share problems, solutions, strategies, and concerns. They are about real work. Sources of insights and solutions come from on-the-ground practice, academic literature and external expertise. Communities of practice have existed wherever staff have gathered to “talk shop” about innovative ways to, for example, combat trafficking in persons or deploy technology to empower civil society. They might be thought of as a “social platform” that enables both individual and collective learning.

The Agency can benefit from such communities of practice by bridging the physical distance between its staff in Washington and the field. Staff in the field can participate by asking questions, sharing resources and experiences, or joining in a discussion about the impact of new technologies on development, for example, and how that can affect their work on the ground.  For those in the field, a community is all about collaboration and learning with peers, building useful relationships, and getting access to help when needed. The value for staff in Washington is to have a clearer line of sight into field concerns and the application of policies or materials generated in Washington. It’s a shift toward a strategy of developing connections and stimulating inquiry.

A community of practice approach will have an immediate impact in how USAID organizes regular face-to-face meetings like this week’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) Forum and DRG Officers Workshop. Participants can expect fewer PowerPoint slides and more conversations—and more voices—than in traditional conferences.  USAID is using these two convenings to model useful participatory practices such as social reporting or the use of Twitter #DRGForum to share what is happening “in the room” with those unable to attend.

During the Workshop, participatory learning methods will be used in many sessions as well as in the highlights and reflection moments at the beginning and end of the day.  Field officers who have traveled from all corners of the world can return to their countries armed with knowledge to share with their colleagues such as innovative ways to integrate democracy, human rights and governance into climate change, food security and health programs.  Expect to hear about great outcomes when practitioners gather as a community!