A quick google search indicates that the terminology; real-time learning, first appeared within online education. One definition used was “… forms of education in which students learn from instructors, colleagues, or peers at the same time, but not in person.”
I thought of it after chatting about Ushahidi with co-founder and former CEO Juliana Rotich on my podcast. (To listen to the episode, subscribe to “Plurrify” in your podcast app, or go here.) Juliana explained how core funding gives innovative entities the flexibility to explore new ideas and to learn through mistakes and that this is what had allowed Ushahidi to be continually innovative after its initial success. Or in other words, to keep innovating new products, not just maintain its current.
This is a rather elementary concept, however I’ve yet to come across a social entrepreneur or an organisation of any kind for that matter, that has explained this in a simplistic way.
I shall henceforth talk about this as “real-time learning”.
For innovators and entrepreneurs in the ICT space, or at least for the successful one’s, this is intuitively known. However not by the donors or the donor community. Note above that Juliana highlighted the importance of core funding, something that unfortunately today is only employed by a minority of donor entities.
Project-based funding, the funding norm today, means that you formulate a project plan, which in turn influences your deliverables, which then are linked to the budget. Once you pivot – yes for truly innovative organisations and projects it’s not a matter if you’ll pivot, but when – then you have to re-write the project plan, update the deliverables and the budget. Besides being time-consuming, and not having any impact on your deliverables, this is often when the relationship between donor and implementer gets tested.
From a donor perspective it appears that the implementer doesn’t know what they’re doing – which ironically they often don’t, if they did, they wouldn’t be innovating. From an implementer perspective the donor appears unsupportive and slow to react. Both lose confidence in each other and down the rabbit hole you go.
Having been a funder, a recipient, a go between and an implementer of ICT projects I’ve seen good projects fail simply because of overly bureaucratic processes and unrealistic or poorly managed expectations. Often without either party understanding why and what really happened.
Even on successfully implemented projects, talent is often wasted on heavy, barely read, documentation. This is not only a waste of time on a successful project, but when it fails, which most innovative ICT related projects do, it’s even worse. Worse case scenario, project-based funding causes harm. It ties up scarce talents, i.e. good innovators and entrepreneurs, in document heavy processes, moving them away from implementing, and having actual impact. I’ve seen this happen many a times. Yet, the current structures remain the same and as long as they do, so will the outcomes, and that includes some donors causing more harm than good when investing in innovation.
It’s a donor myth that there are many great ideas out there. Even more so if you consider the limited amount of entrepreneurs that can successfully implement the aforementioned idea. That combination is rare. So what can one do? Simple, only invest in organisations or individuals that you trust.
Invest in talent. Use your clout to connect them to resources.
Give them space to perform.
To decide which organisations or individuals to trust and invest in, each donor must set their own tolerances. However I’d suggest that the implementers that employ real-time learning would be put front and center. In the long run, they will be successful.