11: Learning from the Work

Why Capture Lessons Learned?

Continuous Improvement Doesn't Just Happen

Your partnership should by now have established a set of short-, medium- and long-term goals as part of your metrics and evaluation strategy, but keeping track of lessons learned along the way will make sure you actually get to those goals. Good sector partnerships build in necessary time and tools to reflect and re-assess so their sector-based solutions are improved regularly. In essence, if mid-term corrections are needed, a partnership must be deliberate about recognizing changing conditions or the lack of success of a certain tactic, and then change course as needed. To do this effectively:

  • Establish a simple, practical system for keeping track of progress.
  • Ask for feedback from public and private sector members.
  • Incorporate feedback by revising how the partnership operates and/or what tactics are deployed.
  • Capture what is working and how you know its working -- these anecdotes can turn into powerful stories that will help strengthen your initiative.

Lessons Learned Help You Tell Your Story

Capturing lessons learned over the short and long-term help any organization or initiative to tell their story. Why is telling your story important? Because telling the story of why your initiative exists, where it's been, and where it's going is key to its growth and success. It is the groundwork for effective marketing, and remember that you and your partners want to be messaging to multiple audiences on a continual basis, including funders, new members, so-far disengaged systems or employers, and the community. To tell the story of your initiative:

  • Understand how your actions are firmly grounded in your strategic priorities.
  • Test storylines with your members -- is this our unified story about why we exist, what we do and where we're going?
  • Consider that the combined exercise of tracking lessons learned and formulating your story will empower the partnership to pro-actively move toward your tangible goals.

Things to Consider

Check in with Employer Members

Because employer members are the primary customer and source of input for your initiative, your initiative should regularly check to see if their needs are being met. This can happen in straightforward ways by asking: Are we still on track? Are we still talking about and addressing your needs? How have your needs changed? What is still the most persistent challenge for your industry? What is working about this initiative for you? What is not? Remember also that the advantage of the sector approach is that you can gauge the common needs and interests across firms in the industry because multiple employers are involved and giving their input. This should help the intermediary to know which pieces of feedback are the most valid or most urgent, and not just an outlying complaint, compliment or suggestion for changed direction.

Feedback can also come in more indirect ways. If the initiative does a good job at tracking engagement by and contributions from public and private members, it should be easy to determine if services or activities are meeting their needs. For example, if training for workers is a service of the initiative, a spreadsheet that tracks worker participation and pooled resources by employer members to support a worker training program can show over time how important that training is to employers.

Stay Hungry for Outcomes

Recall in Chapter 7: Metrics and Evaluation, we suggest three phases of evaluating your initiative's progress: 1) Evidence of progress; 2) Products and Services; and 3) Outcomes or impacts. Recall in Chapter 9: Early and Mid-term Products, we discuss how the early- and mid-term products, services and activities of your initiative should lead to the longer-term outcomes your public and private members agree is the change they want to see. In other words, mid-term products and services are the "pre-conditions" to longer-term outcomes. It is easy to misinterpret an initiative's product, service or activity (for example, a new training program) as an outcome. In fact, the outcome is what we see as a result of the new training program (for example, the number of program completers and/or number of skilled new hires). When tracking lessons learned, it will be important to regularly check to see if your initiative's products and services are in fact leading to the outcomes needed and named by the industry. This takes time and a good tracking system. Beware of complacency; don’t stop at products; push to outcomes.

Use Lessons Learned to Message and Market

Articulating lessons learned about what's working and what's not can often be turned into marketing tools. Short case studies about activities and scope of influence; synopses of what's been working over the lifetime of the initiative; and even references to what's been the most challenging can be effective ways to illustrate the value of the partnership.

Chapter 11 Review Questions

  1. How are you keeping track of what’s working and what’s not about the partnership and its activities?
  2. Can public and private partners “tell the story” of their efforts related to this partnership and its activities? How do you know?
  3. When did you last check in with employers (i.e. Are we still on track? How have your needs changed? What are the most persistent challenges your industry is dealing with? What is working and not working about this initiative?)
  4. How do you know that you’re pushing toward outcomes? Or are you satisfied with products and services?