Co-Designing Learning Journeys for Policymakers and Academics

Over the past year I have been part of a team designing the pilot programme for Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) – an ambitious four-year project to bring academics and policy professionals closer together in order to deliver better informed and more effective policy. 

Detailed below are some of the key considerations of co-designing this learning approach to academic-policy engagement and evidence use, in a world still adjusting to post-pandemic ways of working and (in the case of our two participating government policy teams) a world changed and full of challenges because of it.

Building on the success of the pilot (which was structured using the ROAMEF cycle – Rationale, Objectives, Appraisal, Monitoring, Evaluation and Feedback), we are currently building a Community of Practice which consists of Government bodies and Universities interested in understanding, exchanging and improving their knowledge, ideas and practices.

Below is an abridged sample of my contribution to an article on the Nesta website co-written with Kuranda Morgan, which can be found here.

Convening Stakeholders

Creating innovation learning programmes is a delicate choreography. To effectively share what works we structure our insights and knowledge through a variety of experiences, channels and methods to ensure it lands with impact. Our partners build their capabilities and apply that knowledge while the world doesn’t stop around them: Policies change, project goals shift, personnel flow in and out. Ensuring that our programmes are inspiring, relevant and accessible is carefully designed in.

Academic and policy institutes not only have broader cultural, organisational and mechanical differences between them. CAPE convenes five universities and multiple government and third sector bodies, each with their own assets and objectives. Our pilot learning programme brought these stakeholders together to focus support on the needs, strengths and challenges of two government policy teams.

Co-Designing the Learning Journey

Together with the two teams, we embarked on a year-long learning journey: A collaborative approach to harmonise the programme plan with the objectives and realities of all our diverse stakeholders was essential. One foundation stone is our use of language. Positioning this as a ‘learning journey’ helped to ensure that we put the experiences and expectations of our teams at the heart of every decision that was made. 

CAPE’s Learning Journey incorporating different channels of learning, networking and application

Each workshop and interaction aimed to focus the right knowledge at the right time to ensure that it synchronises well with the live and evolving policy challenges our teams faced. Other approaches, such as ‘front-loading’ sessions (e.g. an intensive course or ‘boot camp’) and following up with coaching suffer as learning fades over time, whereas a rigid pre-determined programme may be less complicated to plan and deliver, but steamrollering through can miss the mark of what is needed and relevant as time progresses.

In order to achieve this level of user-centredness without sacrificing the structural and content imperatives of the programme, we adopted a more intensively co-designed approach. Stage by stage, stakeholders designed each upcoming workshop in a collaborative and open co-design session. This allowed us to compare and adapt the programme’s planned objectives with the key needs and situations of the teams and their challenges. This helps increase the chances of applying that knowledge in the near term which boosts understanding and longer term adoption. The co-design sessions informed the selection of expert speakers, methodologies, and content to include within workshops – including  briefs for the design of bespoke and engaging online activities to bring this learning to life which –  in our rapid shift to remote and now hybrid working –  is essential. They also provided important feedback for future iterations of content, design and evolutions of the programme structure.

Democratising the design process helps dissolve the role boundaries of knowledge disseminator / receiver, and fill a linear timeline with loops and cycles. Just as there will be myriad contexts to apply the learning or replicate the content, there is no single refined and perfected panacea to ultimately deliver it.

Each workshop featured several collaborative online activities across each day; all carefully co-designed to be intuitive and clear, allowing participants to focus on learning and discussions.

Principles over Plans

The pandemic accelerated already existing trends in how we work and live, providing both opportunities and constraints when designing workshops and key moments of interaction on the learning journey. We are always mindful of how to best incorporate differences – from organisational cultures to individual needs, personalities and working styles – to make sessions as accessible as possible.

The Best Solution is Several Solutions

A commitment to blended learning and a keen focus on people’s needs, experiences and expectations helped maintain interest and momentum throughout the pilot. We know that some will thrive in contributing to or leading visual activities designed on online whiteboards such as Miro and Mural, and others may struggle to absorb content in slide presentations. Our discussions and Q&A sessions were vital for understanding where people’s thinking is at, but we know we can’t fully read the room when not together in person. As hybrid working establishes itself, we will continue to add different ways of accessing and participating that are inclusive, diverse and engaging in both online and in-person contexts.

Learning and Working in Loops

Every key moment of the pilot incorporated honest discussions and feedback amongst facilitators and participants. ‘Action learning loops’ ensured that we were acting on this new knowledge to refine upcoming sessions and communication and evolving the programme as a whole.

Good Design is Often Invisible

In lieu of being in a room together, online whiteboards have become a common way to work together. These infinite 2-D spaces do not suit everyone, and can be disorienting and distracting. Just as people playing a board game don’t want to be unsure of what to do next or referring to the rules instead of enjoying the game, each workshop activity had to be carefully designed. Intuitive mechanisms for interacting, with a logical flow and clear visual cues allowed people to focus on the discussion and task at hand.

The Journey is the Means and the Ends

The pilot’s six workshops became not the driver or centrepiece of the programme, but punctuation of a learning journey: Moments to reflect, recharge and bring on board new thinking to tackle upcoming policy challenges. The workshops and the co-design sessions provided a space away from the day-to-day demands of the job; protected time to step back, spend quality time with colleagues to create things together and think about the bigger picture and direction. Here the journey is the means, but also the ends.