Strategic Learning in Practice: Tools to Create the Space & Structure for Learning

Published: October 2012

Type: Publication

This brief describes practical steps for designing and using theories of change and strategic learning debriefs as tools for creating the space and structure required for strategic learning. 


Evaluation that supports strategic learning applies evaluation findings as well as non-evaluation data in order to improve strategy. Tools to support the practice of evaluation for strategic learning purposes have yet to be articulated, in part because learning itself can be so varied that the idea of common tools is hard to conceptualize. Yet there are tools that broadly apply to many strategic learning settings and that can become core to the success of a learning organization.

Organizations do not routinely learn unless they are purposeful about creating both the space and the structure for collective dialogue and exchange. This brief explores two tools that organizations can use for this purpose:

  1. Theories of Change that create the structure for learning and function as living documents that are equally relevant to planning, implementation, and learning.
  2. Strategic Learning Debriefs that create the space for learning through reflective practice designed to move from learning to action.

These tools are familiar in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Theories of change are commonly used for strategic planning and are often created by evaluators to clarify program logic and guide the evaluation process. In addition, evaluators often use periodic debriefs to provide program implementers with updated evaluation findings. However, using these tools specifically to support strategic learning requires some adaptation from how they are traditionally used.

This brief describes practical steps for designing and using these tools to create the space and structure for strategic learning. It also can serve as a guide for strategic learning practitioners and provides a case example that illustrates the use of both tools.