Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When was the last time you learned from a case study?

Knowledge sharing is critical – but how can we do it well for sustainable development?

A friend of mine who is working on enabling international businesses to become more sustainable was recently talking to a particularly successful business about the lessons that they had learned in the process of their work. They wanted to share those lessons with other businesses. Well, they said, we could write it up as a case study and distribute it in a newsletter or something to our partners. And my friend said, wait a second, when was the last time you learned and then implemented something that you learned from reading a case study? His colleague paused and thought about it. Never, he said.

Never! That’s a strong word. But I thought back to my own experience. When have I used the knowledge I’ve read in case studies from Africa to India that I have not been personally involved with or have not talked to/knew the people involved in them? Sometimes, I find inspiration from a good blog or a good article about a project, or I might remember an idea I’ve read while browsing through documents, but if I just read it and don’t fully engage with it, I don’t tend to learn much from it either. I can’t think of any either. Which suggests that case studies, in their traditional form, are often wasted attempts to share knowledge – and will lead to only more frustration of everyone wanting to present their case study but not learning from other people’s.

But we do learn from other people’s experiences. I am reminded of the work of the international development organization, The Hairou Commission. They work to organise and connect grassroots women’s organisations from around the world, focusing particularly on knowledge sharing in South-South partnerships. They have primary areas: health, agriculture, climate change, governance, etc. They bring women together to different conferences, colloquiums, and online forums, and other knowledge-sharing platforms to share each other’s stories. These are very powerful; women learn from one another and frequently count these experiences as some of the most important processes throughout their year. They are, in essence, sharing the ‘case studies’ of their lives.

So what’s the main difference? Besides gender, the main difference is person-to-person (even if it is online) listening and sharing versus reading someone else’s work - which rarely seems to readily apply to your reasonably different situation. Because that’s how learning happens: through listening, sharing, experiencing being heard, and really being in communication with another person. Which is why much of the ‘really good stuff’ at conferences happens in the hallways and over a glass of wine. It’s not just passing name cards around – it is the experience of being heard and listening. So go ahead and make your case study – but don’t assume that just propelling it into the universe will get you anywhere. Find the best times and places to bring it out and use it for real knowledge-creation for sustainable development – usually when people have the opportunity to really engage with it.

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