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Research Questions

  1. How do organizations undertake lessons-learned efforts and ensure that such efforts are comprehensive, fact-based, and free from undue bias or influence? What organizational structures and research and evaluation techniques are effective and ineffective?
  2. How are lessons-learned efforts managed and overseen so that employees see them as organizational priorities and as performance-enhancing exercises instead of as efforts to assign blame for mistakes?
  3. How do organizations use the results of lessons-learned studies to change practices and behavior? How are lessons incorporated into professional training?
  4. Do efforts to study and apply lessons learned differ in the public and private sectors?

Reflective and adaptive organizations are effective ones, and these characteristics are particularly important in today's complex world. The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review emphasized the importance of creative problem-solving and fostering innovation while managing complex risks. The review anchored these principles to the capture and communication of lessons learned, a multidisciplinary concept for organizational growth fueled by reflection on past actions or events that guide a subsequent improvement in organizational procedures or practices. An effective lessons-learned program requires an organizational infrastructure that promotes a culture of learning. The Department of State has already developed several organizational elements and cultural attributes related to lessons learned, and these provide a starting point from which the department can mature its enterprisewide capabilities. To that end, this report explores best practices across fields of organizational theory and within both public and private organizations. The authors reviewed relevant literature, collected information from public and private organizations, and conducted roundtables to create a list of thematic best practices intended to guide the Department of State as it continues to develop a culture of learning and an enhanced lessons-learned capability.

Key Findings

Vision and Approach Matter

  • Best practices differ, often greatly, depending on which strategic vision or approach an organization selects. We found that vision and approach matter far more than whether an organization is private or public.
  • A strategic vision is necessary to answer essential implementation decisions, such as the desired outcomes of the program and the target audience for the lessons learned.
  • The strategic approach can leverage business process management or corporate learning strategies or a hybrid of both.
  • In addition, deliberate choices should be made about how to collect, validate, and disseminate lessons learned.

A Strong Culture of Learning Is Essential

  • A strong culture of learning is essential for a lessons-learned program to function effectively and can be fostered through intraorganizational enabling elements, such as securing leader and workforce buy-in; establishing practices, policies, and procedures; and creating and/or connecting existing organizational infrastructure.
  • Extraorganizational knowledge sources, including communities of practice and informal networking, can enhance the effectiveness of the lessons-learned program.

Knowledge Management Is a Major Aspect of Such a Program

  • The information collected and lessons that have been learned should be made available to the broader organization, which can be done in a variety of ways, including databases, reports, and even public recognition.

Recommendations

  • Develop an annual collection plan that flows from the organization's vision and mission and get senior leadership buy-in on what is to be collected and disseminated.
  • To establish a tangible list of requirements, determine the specific outcomes that lessons-learned initiatives should achieve.
  • To better govern the lessons-learned program, assign primary responsibility to an office or body.
  • Establish a formal, named campaign with an accompanying slogan to promote the culture of learning and the existence of the formalized lessons-learned capability.
  • Develop a resource-allocation strategy to ensure that resources are not a constraint on the lessons-learned program's ability to meet the desired outcomes of the program.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The What and When of Effective Lessons-Learned Programs

  • Chapter Three

    Why Implement a Lessons-Learned Program?

  • Chapter Four

    Who Is Involved? The RAND Lessons-Learned Ecosystem Framework

  • Chapter Five

    How Do Organizations Approach Lessons-Learned Program Activities?

  • Chapter Six

    Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations

  • Appendix A

    Interview Protocol, Research Lenses, and Structured Discussion Protocol

  • Appendix B

    Interview Findings

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Una Chapman Cox Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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