FaceTime, Open Workspace, and Electronic Calendars are a Few of My Least Favorite Things: Learning and the Way We Work

Center for Evaluation Innovation
14 min readJul 11, 2017


Julia Coffman, Center for Evaluation Innovation, July 2017

Last year I wrote about my rocky relationship with sticky notes. Actually, it was more about the expanding role of evaluators who work in philanthropy, and the challenge of trying to meet the many demands that accompany that role. Facilitating group learning (often using sticky notes) is a recent skill evaluators have had to hone, and as an introvert I reflected on my own struggles with this extroverted role.

Since then, after facilitating many more “learning meetings” and continuing to invest heavily in the sticky note industry, we at the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) have been studying and thinking much more about what it takes to support learning in philanthropy. We define learning as the use of data and insights from a variety of information-gathering approaches — including monitoring and evaluation — to inform thinking and decision-making.

Our research and reflection have given us a fuller sense of how supporting learning is about much more than facilitation and what happens in a meeting room. This article is just one angle on what we are thinking about on this topic (along with more personal reveals about my likes and dislikes).

My focus here is on foundations and how they learn as organizations, recognizing that this issue is much broader and involves many other important actors, including grantees, beneficiaries, and other partners.

The Challenge With Learning

Responsibility for ensuring foundations learn generally falls to evaluation staff who work in them (or evaluation consultants brought in to support them). In fact, evaluation units in foundations today are highly likely to have “learning” built right into their titles (e.g., Evaluation and Learning; Impact and Learning).

We know some things about being an evaluator in foundations.

· Evaluators are managing an increasing number of responsibilities and expectations. Our benchmarking research with the Center for Effective Philanthropy on foundation evaluation practices found that on average foundation evaluation staff have eight different areas of responsibility. They are distinct activities that range from supporting the development of grantmaking strategy, to designing and facilitating learning processes or events, to disseminating findings externally. They have a lot on their plates.

· The number of evaluation staff has not increased at a concomitant rate. The median number of staff dedicated to this expanding set of responsibilities is 1.5 full-time equivalents (FTEs). Even for the largest foundations (annual giving over $200 million) the median goes up to only 4.0 FTEs. This translates to about one evaluation staff person for every 10 program staff.

These facts together mean that evaluators cannot be everything to everyone, and they cannot single-handedly meet foundation demands for learning. This is particularly true if our responses to meeting them remain primarily in the realm of where they have been to date — focused on the supply-side of securing better and more timely information, and facilitating group consideration of data and decision making. These are critical parts of the equation for sure, but our solutions are not addressing all of the challenges involved.

We have to further expand our thinking about what it takes to support effective learning. We have to remove barriers that are getting in the way. We have to build habits that support it. We have to work with others whose roles and decisions affect what we learn and how.

A foundation evaluation director told us:

“I’m trying to transfer the power for learning to others. Sometimes I do this using structure, sometimes process, and sometimes without people even knowing it’s happening.”

This is the kind of thinking we need. We have to create the supports that help people to learn on their own. And some of those supports have nothing to do with data or facilitation.

Changing the Way We Work to Support Learning

Over a decade ago, Michael Quinn Patton wrote an article titled “Evaluation for the Way We Work.” It was about finding a fit between social innovation efforts and evaluation (his answer was developmental evaluation). The idea was that to be of most value to the work, evaluation needed to fit with and support the way in which we do that work. I want to apply that same idea here, although in reverse.

My premise is that we can adjust some of the ways in which we do our day-to-day work to better support learning.

Four areas in which we might think about doing that follow. They rest on the assertion that learning improves when we have more time and more interaction and communication with others.

While my focus is on philanthropy, there are lessons here for all of us, regardless of where we sit.

Workflow: Being Like Bill Clinton

Recently I heard an anecdote about President Clinton during his first administration, after the mid-term elections of 1994 and the “Republican Revolution” had dealt Democrats a significant blow. The White House had a new chief of staff in Leon Panetta, who brought on deputy for administration Erskine Bowles. Thinking ahead to the 1996 election and the need to be demonstrably productive, Panetta and Bowles decided achieving that would require revamping the way Clinton did his day-to-day job. Frustrated with numerous inefficiencies, including meetings scheduled haphazardly and decisions commonly left unclear, Bowles ordered a time-and-motion study of how the President spent his days.

A time-and-motion study takes complex tasks and breaks them into the sequence of steps used to perform them. It then tracks the amount of time it takes to complete each task, looking for opportunities to reduce redundancies and increase efficiency.

While the findings were never made public, they led to substantial changes in President Clinton’s schedule. Most significantly, the President gained a “study hall” each day, with 3–4 hours of uninterrupted time in the afternoons (3–4 hours!). He used it to make phone calls and have informal meetings, and to read, think, and reflect. It gave him time to get the information he needed to make better decisions; it gave him time to learn.

President Clinton, learning (Source: Reuters)

Our benchmarking research shows that the biggest barrier to program staff learning in foundations is finding the time. Program staff are busy with their own expanding set of responsibilities. But if the President can find time in his schedule to learn, then so can we.

While doing formal time-and-motion studies might not be needed, making workflow process improvements can be one way to free up time for learning. That could mean creating a Clintonian daily study hall, or it might mean re-engineering grantmaking processes so that redunancies are eliminated or people have the tools they need to better manage their time.

Another output from Clinton’s time-and-motion study, for example, was a color-coded calendar — purple for foreign policy, orange for the economy, blue for social policy, and green for government reform — so he could get a sense of where he was spending too much or too little time and what was coming down the pike. Even a minor switch like color-coding a calendar can lead to better information gathering and sense-making across related events.

As one foundation evaluation director put it, “The influence you have on foundation processes is sometimes where you can have the most leverage.” If freeing up time removes the biggest barrier to learning, then solving workflow problems is one way to do it.

Physical Space: Enabling Collisions

We have the great privilege of visiting a lot of foundations. In the process, we have developed a profound fascination with foundation buildings, their designs, and their idiosyncrasies. We have taken countless photos of beautiful lobbies, priceless artworks, state-of-the-art board rooms, and spectacular views.

These are amazing spaces. I mean, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s building is so awesome it has its own Twitter account.

Like many organizations in the for-profit sector, foundations are designing their buildings and work spaces with specific purposes in mind. In many cases, this has meant going to an open space design that minimizes the use of offices with doors or high-walled cubicles and makes use of large open spaces with few walls and sometimes open seating assignments. The Ford Foundation is currently renovating its historic building in this style. When it’s done, “discrete offices along central corridors will give way to wide-open work spaces.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also used this approach for their campus. They applied a number of design concepts:

· Conversational noise and commotion (buzz) are good.

· Private offices and expressions of hierarchy are less valuable.

· Less space per worker can enhance, not degrade, the workspace.

· Daylight and a lot of it is critical.

· Chance encounters foster creativity.

· Mobility is essential.

The gorgeous atrium at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Source: NBBJ)

Research supports the assertion that open space encourages communication and creativity. The authors of the Harvard Business Review article Workplaces that Move People used sociometric badges to measure employee face-to-face interaction, conversation time, how people move, and where they spent their time. Their data showed that “creating collisions — chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization — improves performance.”

Other organizational anecdotes support this. After Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer infamously banned remote work, the company redid its office space in the open space format and claims that it is now more collaborative, innovative, and productive. I recently was in the “smartest building in the world” in Amsterdam. This building is so smart that every toilet has its own IP address so the cleaning crew can monitor the number of flushes and distribute their efforts accordingly. Deloitte, the building’s tenant, claims the building’s design has improved performance significantly.

Introverts and privacy lovers (like me; I like doors) will be happy to know that the research on open space is not unanimously supportive. A 2014 article in The New Yorker titled The Open-Office Trap identified numerous disadvantages, such as lower concentration, decreased team cohesion, and increased sick days.

Open space is not the right solution for all types of learning. It appears to be right for learning that leads to innovation. It is not the right solution if smaller team engagement and interaction is desired. According to the Workplaces that Move People authors, higher small group engagement may be best achieved by retaining walled-off workstations and setting up adjacent spaces for collaboration and interaction. The type of interaction and learning desired (across the organization or within teams), has different implications for how space is configured.

Doors are still missing, but this is the general idea of walled-off workstatsions with adjacent spaces for collaboration. (Source: Geyer)

Opportunities for interaction are key, balanced with spaces that offer privacy — a hybrid mix that employees can move between. While foundations need places to have confidential grantee conversations and do independent work, workspaces should help people collide in productive ways.

In reflecting on his approach to supporting learning, one foundation evaluation director told us he is trying to help move the organization from an “independent study” culture to one that also emphasizes collective learning toward a broader mission. Space configuration is one way to support this shift, without calling people together formally for the explicit purpose of learning.

Even foundations that are not renovating or creating new buildings, or those that want to preserve more traditional office spaces, can think about ways to help staff collide. Before the office closed because of the foundation’s limited life status, The Atlantic Philanthropies office in Dublin rang a chime each day throughout the building that called all staff together for tea. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation offers staff free lunch every day, with the proviso that food cannot be taken back to desks; it has to be eaten together.

Virtual Space: Busting the Allen Curve

About seven months ago, my associate director moved from the office next door in Washington D.C. to Denver, Colorado — adding 1681 miles to the 6 feet that used to be between us. CEI only had two staff at that time, her and me. To say this move was significant would be an understatement.

There were excellent reasons for this move, and like many organizations that have remote working relationships, we decided we would not let it affect the way we work together.

Back in 1977, Thomas Allen discovered a negative correlation between physical distance and frequency of communication. The “Allen curve,” as it was coined, says that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away as with someone 60 feet away. If we have colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings, we might as well work for different organizations. If they are in other states or countries, forget about it.

While distance-reducing technologies — Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangout, Webex, Bluejeans — would seem to cancel out the Allen curve, that does not appear to be the case. In fact, proximity may be more important than ever. In one study of engineers who shared a physical office, for example, workers were 20 percent more likely to communicate electronically with one another than with co-workers elswhere. When collaboration was needed, workers in the same office emailed each other four times as much.

The Allen Curve (Source: Harvard Business Review)

The implications for learning here are clear. If you can’t run into one another physically, and you’re not communicating nearly as much, your chances of learning together are reduced.

We can relate. It is harder to have spontaneous conversations the minute ideas occur; harder to debrief after conversations with clients when thoughts are fresh; and harder to maintain the back-and-forth informality of in-person interactions.

The point here is not to suggest that people need to be located in the same physical space. While I would like to have my associate director back in the office, I’m not issuing any policies like Melissa Mayer at Yahoo. That is not the way the work world is moving, and there are many advantages to remote working arrangements that balance out the tradeoffs (e.g., talent recruitment and retention). In addition, this is simply not even possible for some organizations like foundations, where having different country offices or locating staff where the work is actually happening is critical.

But if we are in different locations and working for the same organization or team, we need to tackle the impacts of remote working on communication and learning.

In the article Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others, author Sean Graber emphasizes this core communication principle — match the message with the medium.

“To effectively share information that is complex or personal, you often need to observe body language, hear tone and inflection, and be able to see what you’re talking about. For those purposes videoconferencing is the next best thing to talking face-to-face. At the other end of the spectrum, small, non-urgent requests are best suited to e-mail, instant messaging, or all-in-one platforms like Slack. Although this seems commonsensical, many people instinctively default to their preferred method of communication, which can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and lost productivity.”

My preferred mode of communication is written, and only recently have I agreed to FaceTime and Skype. I also have a bad habit of saving documents on my hard drive instead of our shared cloud service accounts. I don’t keep my electronic calendar current and no one else can see it. I’m obviously a big part of the problem.

Trying to improve remote interaction is not solved just because distance-reducing technology is available. You have to use it first, and then use it in effective ways, creating norms and habits about when to interact and how.

Us, trying.

Technology: Building Literal Platforms for Learning

We recently heard from a foundation being challenged by the organization’s technology decisions and their impact on learning. The foundation’s technology priorities historically had been securing its data and devices and increasing internal efficiency of its processes (e.g., grant application and report submission and approval processes).

The foundation then switched its mission to a focus on equity. It began using community-driven collaborative strategies, moved program officers into the geographic regions they serve, and re-defined their role to resemble community organizers. It also shifted their evaluation and learning approach to be much more participatory, with an emphasis on shared ownership of data and collective learning.

Their new equity approach depends on grantees and community residents being able to share information, provide input, and participate in group decisions. Their new staffing structure and approach requires collaboration and learning across distances.

The foundation’s mindset around the role of technology and the systems they had in place are now a barrier to working in this new way. They reflect the organization’s historic orientation toward a structured hierarchy of decision makers and carefully managed control over who has access to different kinds of information. Staff want to explore technological platforms that support collaboration and democratize information outside of the foundation’s walls — e.g., video conferencing, group document sharing and editing. This, however, has met with resistance because of security and privacy concerns.

Even software choices and technology policies can put a damper on learning. The point made above bears repeating here — technology and how we use it is important to interaction and learning.

I recently caught up with a former foundation evaluation officer. When she left her position, she started a graduate degree in data science and is now studying state-of-the-art methods for extracting knowledge and insights from structured or unstructured data. It is a form of knowledge management, but goes well beyond how documents and resources are created, shared, and stored.

We talked about how her studies have led her to reflect on how her foundation used Fluxx, their grants management system. She is now working on a project that applies a data science lens to how grant-related information in this kind of database or platform is entered, coded, and most importantly, retrieved.

A Fluxx dashboard (Source: fluxx.io)

Foundation choices around technology are an important part of the conversation about how to support learning. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that creating technological capabilities or building fantastic systems will only be useful if people are trained and incentivized to use them as intended.

Old Habits Die Hard

If you’ve sat next to me in a meeting, you may have noticed that I am very particular about the things I use when I work. For decades now, I have used the same set of materials.

I write only with Pentel .5mm mechanical pencils filled with 2H lead, and red Pilot fine line markers. I carry two notebooks of different sizes with green narrow-ruled paper that I special order from a stationery store in Harvard Square. One contains my weekly to-do list, and the other is for taking notes. I have a weekly at-a-glance paper calendar with a black vinyl cover. I take these things everywhere.

My beloved writing supplies.

I have used the same calendar for 20 years, and still have every one stored on a shelf at home, like a little library of my work history.

The completely unnecessary library of my work history.

All of these things are very pleasing to me, and I have developed really strong habits around their use. I’m realizing now, however, that I need to form new habits that will better enable both me and my team to learn. I need to ditch the paper calendar and go fully electronic. I need to start taking meeting notes on our shared electronic platform. I need to share my weekly to-do list so others can understand my priorities and how they relate to theirs.

It is not easy to break habits, particularly if we like them, and to embrace new ways of working. But if we are really committed to learning and not just “independent study,” then the way we do our day-to-day work has to support it.

I’m keeping my red markers though. They’re not hurting anyone.

Julia Coffman is founder and director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation and co-director of the Evaluation Roundtable. Twitter: @Eval_Innovation.