Waking a Sleeping Giant: activating a learning culture within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement

by Becky Buell & Teo Iordache

This drawing, by graphic recorder Benjamin Felis, who accompanied the process, captures the final stages of the Learn to Change journey.

Can a 100 year old giant learn to change? Judging from the experience of our recent engagement with a diverse group of 300 learners from across the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, the answer is a resounding yes.

The RCRC Movement was founded 100 years ago to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. It is now made up of National Societies from over 190 countries, counting over 450,000 staff and 13 million volunteers. It oversees a vast network of services, ranging from ambulance services to blood banks to first line humanitarian response in disasters.

Learn to Change

In September, the Presencing Institute partnered with the IFRC, the global secretariat of the movement, to co-design and pilot a learning initiative — Learn to Change — with the goal of introducing members to the concepts and practices of learning organizations , to co-design a framework to guide learning across the Movement, and to create a community of learners who are applying these practices to improve the impact of their work.

Over the course of 2 months, we led a group of 300 participants through a process, based on Theory U, to learn and apply some of the core capabilities of learning leaders and learning organizations — levels of listening, sensing journeys, presencing practices, and prototyping. Participants represented nearly 80 countries, ranging across professional disciplines as diverse as nursing, climate change, sanitation and human resources. Working individually or in small groups, participants applied these practices and shared their insights in 4 live ‘classrooms’ where the breadth of experience and depth of commitment was evident.

A screenshot of one of the Learn to Change program events with Faculty: Becky Buell and Teo Iordache from the Presencing Institute and Fred Fulton of IFRC.

Participants were especially excited about the impact of the ‘Levels of Listening’ tool, introduced at the outset of the program. As one participant said, ‘We need to learn how to see and break patterns of not listening — when one person talks too much or doesn’t listen to another, the recipient then responds defensively, and the non-listening escalates. With the ‘Levels of Listening’ tool I’m experimenting with how to bring awareness to the pattern and change it.’

One of the things that people most appreciated about the program was being in a virtual ‘room’ with people representing so many places and roles. As one participant said, ‘When I joined the RC/RC it was because I wanted to be part of an international movement, but it is very rare we actually interact with people outside our own country.’ Learn to Change allowed people to learn together, crossing national boundaries, specialisms and hierarchies in a way that many people had not experienced previously.

Learn to Change was a pilot to test an approach to building learning capabilities across this vast movement. Based on the experience, the participants and IFRC concluded that learning will be critical to achieving the Movement’s mission, and that a program like Learn to Change offers a powerful vehicle for activating the energy and desire for a learning culture across the organization. In the words of one participant:

‘Change is one of the few constants in today’s world. Learning to change is pivotal to “stay alive” professionally and personally. We must learn to change and adapt no least to Climate Change, not only institutionally but also individually.’

Building a culture, capability and confidence for learning across a system as large and diverse as the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is a significant challenge. But the Learn to Change pilot demonstrated that there is a powerful desire and potential across the wide diversity of the Movement for trying out new tools and approaches that support learning and change. As several people said in the course of the pilot, activating this potential in the Red Cross Red Crescent system is like ‘awakening a sleeping giant’. The Presencing Institute and IFRC are looking forward to activating this potential in 2020.

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