Peer/horizontal learning is increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for developing new capacities and transferring relevant knowledge in a more flexible and natural environment. However, is it easy and does it evolve organically? Using the case of ILAIPP, I will share in this blog post some of the key success factors as well as the challenges I have experienced when putting peer learning into practice.

Why was peer learning chosen as a strategy for capacity building

In 2016, ILAIPP (Latin American Initiative for Research on Public Policies), was invited to propose capacity building activities for Phase 2 of TTI’s programming. This network is a collaboration effort among 12 policy research centers in various countries of Latin America that seeks to influence debates on public policies and development of the region, based on their ample research experience.

ILAIPP’s approach consisted of seven modules (with topics ranging from monitoring and evaluation to impact evaluations) that had been agreed between TTI and ILAIPP as relevant to the challenges and needs of ILAIPP’s member organizations and the network itself. The rationale behind this was that several think tanks in this group had extensive experience on diverse issues that positioned them very well to help other members develop their capacities, as well as become facilitators of peer exchange throughout the process. Based on my capacity building experience, especially in online learning, and my knowledge of think tanks and the region, I was invited to join as a resource person to help ILAIPP implement this ambitious initiative.

Key drivers for effective peer learning

After the first year of implementation, ILAIPP could confirm a satisfactory delivery of the activities, proven by various positive evaluations of participants. This was due to several factors.

First, interwoven work between peers and coordinators was key: the approach combined the high commitment and relevant experience of the executing think tanks with a continuous support and feedback from the resource person and the Executive Secretary. This interaction was very important: a team of work between ILAIPP and the think tanks was formed, and gradually enabled openness for reflection and enhancement of designed and planned activities, building up to a work ethos on how to plan, monitor and evaluate capacity building.

Secondly, concerted collaboration was a crucial factor for the integration, cohesion and consistency of the whole process, including constant conversation and consultation with TTI to discuss emerging challenges and come up with solutions to them. For this, regular meetings with executing think tanks and participating think tanks were held to provide a concrete space to share their progress and challenges. Participants shared specific lessons learned and tools, and as a result there was cross learning about how to develop different capacity building activities.

Third, executing think tanks have produced a series of knowledge products and capacity building materials that can lead to further peer learning for other members of the participating think tanks, and the wider TTI community. There are upcoming products such as a series of guides to develop quality assurance systems and ethical standards, case studies on participatory evaluation and on how to influence electoral processes and a practical guide on methodologies for systematic reviews.

Finally, the initiative also reflected on how to scale up learning to the organizational level, which extends peer learning from individual participants to others and/or the whole institution. To this end, participating think tanks were asked to identify anticipated organizational outcomes, and several efforts have been deployed to help them with this. For example, in the design of the modules, mentoring to conduct organizational projects (such as developing a communications handbook or implementing an innovation in their funding model) was included. We also provided them with menus of different types and levels of organizational outcomes. Some of them came up with effective approaches that provided inspiration to others.

Challenges remain

However, it´s not that simple (of course). I have shared here what worked well but we also faced - and are still facing - several challenges.

Even though organizational outcomes were defined, organizational change is complex, long and difficult for many of these think tanks. It takes time and effort to turn the whole capacity building process into a coordinated and integrated effort. In some cases, participating individuals could not easily translate what they have learned to others in their think tanks, due to the lack of time (some even faced difficulties to participate in all activities and/or deliver tasks), or the low level of relevance of the capacity building activity within the whole organizational agenda. Many were not aware of which members of staff were participating in other modules and how.

Also, peer learning generally assumes the same level of needs and interests among peers. However, several module organizers expressed that they had to invest more time than they had foreseen in adapting both the content and the format of delivery to the heterogeneous needs and capacities of participating think tanks. This is a recurrent challenge when offering a structured process to think tanks that are at different maturation phases that vary also according to the topic.

Finally, governance of ILAIPP has also posed a challenge due to the fact that ILAIPP was both the “judge and jury”. This affected the overall management of the initiative: many of their members were on one side executing modules with the need to promote commitment and achieve results, but also participating on other modules as recipients (and some of their colleagues not fulfilling the required tasks and participating partially). Conflicts and challenges came back to the same group. This was again repeated at the ILAIPP level since the Executive Secretary was a facilitator of the network and reported to the Regional Executive Committee composed of think tanks. This leaves us with a very interesting question: how can peers better monitor and evaluate themselves within peer learning processes?

By building on what has been achieved, and being aware of both the key success factors and the remaining challenges, ILAIPP has the opportunity to strengthen this peer learning experience during 2018 as it begins planning how to extend this offering to other think tanks in the region and in the TTI community.