How do people learn in networks? Can networks stimulate learning? And how might that relate back to the organisations these people are a part of?

These questions were discussed on the 10th of May during a one day conference in Utrecht organised by PSO and Partos, two organisations which support Dutch NGOs in development work. Steve Waddell (USA), author of Global Action Networks, was a special guest.

The conference was a follow up to the expert meeting held one year before, which I helped to organise. This time there was a range of interesting case studies, presented by partners such as Oxfam-Novib, Woord en Daad, the Progresso Network of coffee producers, the Network University, MDF and ICCO.

This blog post is no attempt at a comprehensive report on the day. I am only focusing on the things which I found striking (but there were quite many).

Saskia Verhagen shared her experience at Novib, which was that all of the following assumptions, made earlier about shared learning were untrue:

“We are partners.”

“People want to learn.”

“Documented experiences are equal to institutional learning.”

“Don’t try to re-invent the wheel.”

In reality:

  • Funding agencies and recipients are not partners.
  • People only want to learn if there is trust. This requires common ground, absence of competition, and face-to-face contact.
  • Documented knowledge is merely information, and not a guarantee that anyone will do anything with it.
  • Everyone needs to invent their own wheel.


Beautiful and most important lessons indeed!

Wim Blok shared tools that had helped different partners to talk about the same thing. It was a step in the international alliance building effort I was involved in last year, together with MDF (in Bénin and the Philippines).

Jasmijn Besorak talked about “Vibrant Communities” of 400,000 producers in 1,500 member organisations in 24 countries. How to stimulate vibrancy? Keep it challenging! Competitions and awards were just some examples givens.

Eelco Kruizinga came from DNV, a large consultancy firm based in Oslo, working on programmes around bridge technologies and climate change. Learning is not so much about data but stories, he told us. To bring relevant stories to the surface, they used a very simple tool, the “After Action Review”.

With the After Action Review, there are four leading questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why the difference?
  • What are the lessons to be learnt?


This is even faster than the Time Line Method and Learning History. How simple can it be? The crucial point is that in most organisations, people never take the time to reflect on what they are doing.


Steve Waddell was, once again, fascinating. I first met him in November 2010 in Nairobi, at a meeting of the Change Alliance, of which he is an important actor. He works with networks that bring initiatives to the global scale, trying to reach a tipping point in the public opinion. FSC wood is a good example. No responsible entrepreneur or politician today can afford it to make use of wood without a certified origin. The “Sustainable Food Lab”, initiated by Peter Senge, is another network in which he is active. We talked about his Action Networks and my FAN approach. A few months later he presented his new book Global Action Networks in Wageningen. (Highly recommended reading!) This spring he wrote a blog about the FAN approach on his website.


According to Steve, the major challenge is getting networks to reflect on what they are doing. People meet, but do not take time to reflect and learn. It requires a level of trust.

You could speak of “an ecology of learning”. He builds on the insights of Otto Scharmer and the U-turn theory. When it comes to transformational processes and deep learning, those involved must first acknowledge that they are all a part of the problem. NGOs, funding agencies and governments have to accept that hierarchical management is problematic in networks. Only then can there be joint awareness (described as “co-sensing” in theory), and the feeling of being “in the same boat". From there, the “U-turn” through mutual inspiration and co-creation, can take place.

Professor Gerd June initiated the Network University some twelve years ago, set up as an open university with internet courses. He now wants to develop a new course, involving Steve Waddell, Koen Faber (PSO), Ger Roebeling (MDF) and myself. To be continued…

In the final forum discussion, Ger Roebeling made a nice statement:

"Learning is done by people, not organisations. Don’t count on organisations anymore, but on the networks formed by learning people. "