By Mandana Nakhai, Senior Manager, Research
CareerWise is an organization with a relatively small team and a relatively huge mission. We’re working not only to implement a transformative program but, through youth apprenticeship, to shift the education, labor and economic systems that have created and hold in place the problems we are concerned about. How does a small team get enough leverage to loosen the grip big institutions and long-entrenched ideas have on the way education and careers are linked? We believe that organizational learning is one of the key tools at our disposal. Earlier this year, we passed a significant milestone in our internal journey to improve capacity for effective learning and continuous improvement – the development of a “strategic evidence plan” with consulting partner Project Evident. Our strategic evidence plan, the result of months of deliberate information gathering and reflection, is the roadmap we will follow over the next two years, as CareerWise evolves, to better ask and answer critical questions about our work and impact.
The plan lays out our three big goals for evidence building, which center on building foundational tools, processes and capacities for learning and continuous improvement within and across CareerWise sites, and nine concrete steps we’ll take to reach them. Underlying the roadmap are three core values that power our learning work: utilization focus, practitioner centricity, and “going slow to go fast”.
Centering our learning and evaluation practice on utilization ensures, first and foremost, that we respect the time and resources of our program’s participants. CareerWise is staffed by a team of curious individuals who, understandably, given that we work most days in uncharted territory, have tons of questions about the results of our efforts. But answering questions requires data collection, and it’s usually our participants we need information from. By ensuring every answer we seek could have real impact on improving service delivery, we convey our deep respect for the apprentices, supervisors, and educators who choose to partner with us. If a question is just a “nice to know,” it’s not a priority in our learning agenda.
Advancing practitioner-centricity is core to Project Evident’s mission. We, too, believe that implementers are experts on changemaking, and should, therefore, drive their own evaluation agendas. We also believe implementers know best about what questions they need to ask and answer to do their work better. Yet, all too often, implementer capacity for learning and evaluation is poured into collecting and analyzing data that is only used for accountability and compliance. Just as CareerWise believes individual staff should be our organization’s “fundamental learning units,” Project Evident empowers implementers to take up the mantle of the “fundamental learning units” of the evidence ecosystem.
Finally, we are intent on “going slow to go fast,” in our learning and evaluation practice, another idea originated during strategic evidence planning. In an external environment that tells us everything is urgent all the time, this may be the most trailblazing of our core values. Of course, we believe the problems we seek to solve matter significantly and, as such, we desire to create change as soon as possible. But we also believe that a true systems change strategy, which brings together both a technical solution and transformative approach (as discussed in Rayner and Bonnici’s work The Systems Work of Social Change), fundamentally requires nuanced thinking, intentionality and reflective dialogue, which cannot be accomplished reactively. Building a learning practice through which we can both gain insight about our programmatic solution and continuously improve the transformative side of the work, too, requires a stepwise approach to building and strengthening core learning tools, processes and internal capacities.
One of Rayner and Bonnici’s central proposals is that systems change necessitates expanding the field’s narrow focus on outcomes to place more emphasis on social change processes. Similarly, we believe that by “going slow,” we allow ourselves to focus on the learning processes themselves, and that it is these processes that give us the leverage we will need to “go fast” and scale the scope of our learning when CareerWise’s growth demands it.