How We’re Learning from… Ourselves

As far as international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) go, Lutheran World Relief is pretty tiny. With our 160 staff members worldwide, we’re dwarfed by organizations like Catholic Relief Services (5,211 employees), or WorldVision (44,500 employees). Yet among nonprofits generally, we’re giants.

We have offices in 16 countries that serve relief and development projects in 35. Our staff are literally spread throughout the world. Even in the United States, we have staff in Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York, Cleveland and Fort Collins, Col. With this many employees (and the multiple languages we communicate in), it can often be difficult to learn details about work that is done in any particular country or place. Enter social networking…

Shining Light on Projects

A few months ago, our Monitoring & Evaluation team sought a way to improve that. They’ve been putting together a method of evaluating the effectiveness of our work that puts a strong emphasis on learning. When LWR staff in Indonesia work to improve the lives of farmers, how can our staff in Mali learn from their successes and mistakes?

While staff do travel to various countries on a regular basis, international travel can get quite expensive. To improve our learning we began using Yammer, a social networking site that is built specifically for businesses. This allows us to chat about all sorts of interesting stuff. But the most exciting part has been learning about specific projects in the field.

Learning from Farmers in India

This week’s featured “Project Spotlight” is a project in the region of Bihar, India. Our Program Manager there, Subhashis Roy, has been posting photos and details about a project that uses “systematic wheat intensification” (as well as rice intensification, or “SRI”) to improve crop yields for small-scale farmers. As part of that project, we’ve also built a variety of irrigation systems to provide the necessary water.

hand holding a small conventional wheat grain next to a larger SRI grain
Subhashis Roy explains the successes of Systematic Wheat Intensification in Bihar, India.

Staff from around the globe are commenting, asking questions, and learning from the successes our India staff have seen in Bihar.¬†Because of this discussion, Tiurma Pohan, LWR’s Program Manager in Indonesia, was able to ask:

Are there constraints in determining the location of the water tank, the water point? And how [do you] solve it? [W]ho provides soil nutrient?

To which Subhashis could easily reply:

Yes, initially selection of the site was quite challenging because demand of accessing water was so high but their agricultural plots were not adjacent to each other. It was difficult for the team to decide. Villagers were involved in all stages of the discussion and finally it [was] decided that lifting water would be from one place ( to reduce the cost) but there [would] be 3 distribution points at 3 different heights so that [the] maximum number of farmers’ field could be covered.

And our Regional Director for Latin America, Michael Watt, made ties between our work in Asia and South America:

Hi Subhashis. Thanks for sharing the successes of LWR’s ag approach. I find the irrigation particularly interesting. We do gravity flow sprinkle (and some drip) irrigation in the Andes. I think it’s useful for the agency to know what different kinds of irrigation techniques we’re using in different countries‚Ķ.

While cross-regional communication has always been important, we’re still learning how best to learn from one another. Yammer is not going to replace the value of face-to-face meetings. But it is one more tool that we have to do the very best work.

Have you found technology helpful in learning from others? How?