Considering Organizational Learning and Evaluations Larger Potential Impacts

Considering Organizational Learning and Evaluations Larger Potential Impacts

A related trend that has influenced evaluation in the early part of the twenty-first cen- tury is a discussion of the role of evaluation in organizational learning. People in many different, but related, fields—public management, adult learning, workplace learning, organizational management and change, educational administration, leadership, and evaluation—are all writing about organizational learning and looking for ways to build organizations’ capacity to learn and manage in difficult times. Senge’s 1990 book on the learning organization introduced many to the theories and research in this area and prompted managers, policymakers, and others to begin thinking more about how organizations learn and change. Since evaluators are concerned with getting stake- holders within organizations to use evaluation information, obviously the concept of organizational learning was important. Preskill and Torres’ book, Evaluative Inquiry for Learning in Organizations (1998), was one of the first to bring these concepts to the attention of evaluators through their proposal for evaluative inquiry. But other eval- uation theories and approaches and the experiences of evaluators in the field were also converging to prompt evaluators to think more broadly about the role of evaluation in organizations and the tasks evaluators should perform. As early as 1994, Reichardt, in an article reflecting on what we had learned from evaluation practice, suggested that evaluators should become more involved in the planning stages of programs, because the skills that evaluators brought to the table might be more useful in the beginning stages than after programs were completed. Evaluators’ increasing use of logic models to identify the focus of an evaluation and to put that focus in an appropriate context made program stakeholders more aware not only of logic models, but also of evalua- tive modes of thinking (Rogers & Williams, 2006). Patton (1996) coined the term “process use” to refer to changes that occur in stakeholders, often program deliverers and managers, who participate in an evaluation. These changes occur not because of specific information gained from the evaluation results, but, instead, because of what they learned from participating in the evaluation process. The evaluation process itself prompts them to think in new ways in the future. This learning may include some- thing as direct as using logic models to develop programs or being more comfortable and confident in using data to make decisions.

Thus, the concept of learning organizations, introduced from other disciplines, and evaluators’ reflections and observations on their role in organizations and their potential impact converged and prompted evaluators to move beyond the traditional focus on instrumental use of results to consider broader uses of evaluation and ways to achieve those uses more effectively.

60 Part I • Introduction to Evaluation

All the changes we have discussed here—standards-based movements, the focus on outcomes, and the government’s and United Way’s focus on employees collecting data using on going internal systems—were also designed to change the culture of organizations and to improve organizational learning and decision making. These changes have often been initiated by people outside evaluation, such as policymakers; public administrators; and people from management, budgeting, or finance. The evaluators involved in creating performance monitor- ing systems such as GPRA or United Way’s focus are often from different schools of evaluation than those who are advocating organizational learning through empowerment evaluation or evaluative inquiry. Nevertheless, the directions of all these changes are to modify and improve organizations’ ways of learning and making decisions. Some methods are likely to be more successful than others, but the overwhelming change in this period is for evaluators to begin thinking of evaluation in broader terms. In the past, evaluators and their clients have tended to see evaluations as discrete studies to be used for a particular problem or policy, rather than viewing evaluation as a continuing system for learning and one part of many systems that provide information and learning opportunities for organizations.

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