10 insights about frontline learning in humanitarian response

A contingent of European journalists listen to a local liaison officer working with Relief Hope Recovery (GOA), one of several partners of the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) at Rhino refugee settlement.

Flickr/ EU – Edward Echwalu

Humanitarians learn everyday. They have to problem-solve on the spot in complex and evolving contexts – sometimes far from the ideals of project proposals – and gain a valuable tacit understanding of the experiences, needs and priorities of the affected communities they interact with. Their skills and knowledge are essential for effective humanitarian action.

Yet there are multiple challenges to frontline learning, including, among others, a lack of time, appropriate resources, and – in some cases – interest from senior staff. And this matters because if learning doesn’t get shared with peers or integrated into future organisational decision-making and project design, this has a detrimental effect on the outcomes for those affected by crises.

1. Frontline staff hold a wealth of knowledge about projects but lack the spaces to raise relevant issues with each other or with their managers.

Participants from the project explained that the action learning pilots created spaces where participants were able to share examples of best practice and collectively problem-solve, something that they don’t experience in their daily work. Managers also explored new ways of interacting with their frontline staff: some were surprised by the knowledge staff brought to the table when they were given the opportunity to do so. As one manager explained:

‘When we began to explore the challenges and they started talking about their solutions, I was really surprised that they really had great ideas. Before they didn’t have the “floor”, they didn't have the chance to talk. When they did, they came up with ideas I have never heard about'.

2. Frontline staff want learning approaches with practical application to ongoing problems and quick solutions.

Action learning participants valued the opportunity to pool experiences to get to a solution faster through a technique that supported collective problem-solving, rather than one that encouraged personal reflection to promote individually generated solutions. They also appreciated action learning as an approach that could be applied at any time they needed to think through challenges and get solutions, rather than ‘doing learning’ only at the end of a project or at specific evaluation points within a project cycle.

3. Learning is not just for MEAL staff. Better and regular connections between MEAL and programmes maximise frontline learning.

All participants – some  part of monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) teams, others part of community health facilitation – expressed a desire to focus more on learning within their roles. While the enthusiasm was there, in their daily work MEAL teams and programme colleagues felt disconnected from each other. They were keen for more opportunities to come together to share and implement learning across teams as it was being generated rather than just during end-of-project evaluations.

4. Frontline staff have very little autonomy to protect time for self-directed learning.

At the beginning, we hypothesised that frontline staff who had little time for formal training would appreciate learning new skills independently – at their own pace – as their schedule allowed. In these pilots, however, participants wanted to learn as a group in formally agreed times. Self-directed learning was practically very hard for them, spare time was limited and most were not empowered to carve out their own schedules. Formal training as a group in set periods made it harder for managers to pull them away to prioritise other tasks.

5. Although online learning sessions worked, frontline staff preferred in-person contact.

COVID-19 restrictions forced this project to go digital, when much was originally designed to happen in person. The adaptation worked relatively well and, on the whole, participants within the tacit learning steering committee and the action learning trainings worked effectively together, sharing ideas and experiences with relative candour. Almost unanimously, however, frontline staff expressed regret that the sessions were not held in person and made that their main recommendation for changes.

6. Adaptation is key for frontline staff to fit new learning approaches into their busy schedules.

We trialled action learning as a seemingly straight-forward approach that required little time or resources. However, even action learning in its initial form (with groups engaging in several learning cycles at specified periods) proved too structured for frontline staff to adopt. Instead, they took parts of the approach and fitted it into their pre-existing team meetings and in one-to-one discussions in ways that proved successful. Participants saw value in the approach but made it fit by adding a small component of learning and reflection in their busy schedules.One participant explained:

‘It’s very difficult to always improve something or to do something new without adding any additional workload...But, you should say: ‘OK, we can do this, you already have to do it anyway, but I can propose a different way to do it. A way which is more fun and less time consuming.’

7. High turnover of frontline staff is both a challenge to and an imperative for learning.

Turnover is typically high for frontline staff. Indeed, shortly after the trainings finished, all five participants from one organisation had moved on – taking their newfound action learning skills with them. More regular opportunities for frontline staff to share experiences and problem-solve together helps to reduce the knowledge loss of one individual staff member leaving. Helping to capture some of their tacit learning in documented form at more regular points can also sustain learning within an organisation over the longer-term.

8. Organisational and contextual power structures dictate whose learning matters.

Frontline staff and their managers were conscious of how gender, seniority and ethnic dynamics influence who feels comfortable openly sharing challenges, experiences and potential solutions. This can affect whose knowledge gets heard and has the potential to influence change. Indeed, issues of power dynamics permeate various levels within humanitarian organisations – while frontline staff may begin to share learning with peers and with supportive managers, this is no guarantee that their learning can actually affect decision-making. Participants in the project were concerned that, unless more senior staff supported spaces for learning and were willing to listen to the voices of less junior staff, frontline knowledge will not influence immediate decision-making nor inform improvements in future projects

9. There is a strong link between frontline learning and the knowledge and opinions of crisis-affected communities.

The steering committee drawn from local and national NGOs (L/NNGOs) unanimously underscored the importance of learning from crisis-affected communities to support more effective humanitarian response. They highlighted the key role frontline staff play in absorbing that knowledge and conveying it to colleagues who have more limited contact with communities. Without time for frontline staff to share learning from communities and without adequate respect for their voices within humanitarian organisations, efforts to improve community engagement, participation and accountability to affected populations are unlikely to materialise.

10. For frontline learning to thrive, organisations need to invest in creating a supportive environment at all levels to enable learning and to respect a diversity of knowledge in decision-making.

The challenge of supportive learning environments was stressed repeatedly by steering committee members and became a key element of the Sharing Tacit Knowledge resource pack. It was also evident in the action learning pilots, where some staff struggled to put their new learning approaches into practice because more senior staff were not invested in creating the space. While the Action Learning for Frontline Humanitarians resource pack suggests ways staff can strengthen their own learning independently, the pilots underscored the need for wider organisational change if the value of frontline knowledge is to be maximised.