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Systematization of experience is a method aimed at improving practice based on a critical reflection and interpretation of lessons learnt from that practice.
The methodology encompasses the identification, documentation and transfer of experiences and key lessons extracted from a project or an initiative, or group of projects or initiatives for the purpose of advocacy, learning and replication/scaling up. Systematization does not end with the description of the experience and results, but involves a deeper insight into how it was possible to achieve what was achieved –
what worked and what did not?, What were the key factors for success?, What could have been different and why?
in order to facilitate the exchange and use of development solutions.
Systematizations can be done at any point in a project or initiative. If done at the beginning they have to be embedded as reflection spaces and milestones in the project cycle, and generate mid-term products that are distributed to internal audiences for internal learning and improvement, scaling up, etc. The knowledge products as a result of a systematization process include but are not limited to guidelines, toolkits, how to briefs, roster of experts, and case studies.
The method originated in Latin America as early as the 1960s. It emerged out of an increasing desire to document and communicate lessons learnt in field practice, whilst the conventional approach at that time tended to be a linear transition from theory to practice with no regard for critical reflection of the practice. According to Oscar Jara, “A new relationship between theory and practice appeared: instead of applying to practice what had previously been formulated in theory, theoretical approaches are built having as a starting point the systematization of ... practices” (2006, p.14).
Three disciplines contributed to the method: social work, popular education and development facilitation. What these disciplines have in common is that they are all practical rather than theoretical disciplines.
When to use
Systematization is used widely in development, mostly in Latin America but increasingly in Asia too. Use the method if you're looking for a systematic way of documenting lessons learnt in field projects, and with the intention of using those lessons to improve subsequent phases of your project. You should be prepared to communicate the lessons learnt back to the community in which you operate, so that they too can benefit from your project team's experience.
The methodology is in particular useful in the following situations:
Refine frameworks and working hypotheses for scaling up a pilot project or intervention
Improve visibility of a successful initiative or project
Learning for improvement or adjustment of ongoing projects or initiatives
Refine and consolidate a standard based on evidence from multiple initiatives
Facilitate transfer of models, experiences, lessons learned to contexts different to those where the experience originated
Contribute to advocacy and policy debates
Benefits and added value
a. Learning and institutional reflection:
Systematic and periodic analysis of business practices.
Inputs to decision making, strategic planning and continuous improvement of programs and policies.
Dynamic knowledge sharing and use within the institution.
b. Knowledge sharing, transfer and use for effectiveness and innovation:
Facilitate the capture, documentation and analysis of relevant knowledge in a particular subject.
Facilitate scaling up of successful pilots
Contribute to the refinement of models and standards
How to use
Stages of the process
: Plan the Exercise - Purpose, Focus, Participants
Purpose - As with all other knowledge sharing exercises, it is important to know why you are doing Systematization before you begin. Perhaps it is a donor request. Perhaps the responsibility for project improvements lay with you as project manager. Whatever the case may be, make sure that you are clear about the purpose of the exercise before you embark on it.
Focus - Choose an appropriate juncture of your project to systematize. This could be the end of a major deliverable or a milestone. Do not wait until the end of your project, especially if it's a very long one, lest people forget what has happened.
Participants - The people who have undergone the experience must be part of the Systematization, whether they are the government officials or beneficiaries on the ground.
: Reconstruct the Experience
You can reconstruct the experience using a timeline chart.
: Analyse and Interpret the Experience
Use "5 Whys" to get to the root of a challenge that occurred in the project.
: Communicate the Results
Depending on the target group, this can be done using videos, photos, brochures, radio programmes, cartoons, etc.
Tips and Lessons Learnt
A. Selection of project
Select the experience or project to be systematized with care. Systematization involves a considerable effort and investments in time and money. You want to do this investment in situations where it is worthwhile. Here there are some key criteria to consider before undertaking a systematization initiative:
Is the project in line with the organizational mandate and strategy?
Is there a consensus between stakeholders and experts about relevance and potential of impact?
Is the current political environment, such as interests of political parties, elections, special considerations, conducive to undergoing such an exercise?
Is there financial, political, legal and social ownership?
Scalability and transferability:
Is there a reasonable potential for replication and adaptation in other contexts? Or does the experience depend on a particular context?
Does the project feature innovative ways to address a problem?
Is the project externally evaluated with qualitative and quantitative methods and indicators, and do the evaluations results support a scaling up of the project?
Are mechanism and products in place to access/retain the institutional memory related to the project?
What has been the added value and contribution of partner organizations in the implementation of this program/project?
Is there installed capacity to fund and accompany the systematization and transfer process and provide needed inputs, such as existence of focal point(s) for KM, existence of a network of experts for the systematized project that can support its transfer, responsible team, time and resources available, etc.?)
B. Purpose and focus
The following questions can guide you in defining the purpose and focus of the systematization:
Why are we suggesting a systematization process? What do we want to gain from this?
Define purpose of the systematization, e.g. Improve, escalate from pilot, transfer initiative
For whom? Who would be our target audience and why?
Define who will use the systematized knowledge and how
Define an appropriate moment (beginning of project, end of project, after evaluation)
Define what would be systematized: The entire project, a part of the project, a component?
What would be the potential knowledge products as a result of this systematization?
Consider different packages, formats and tools to reach the target audience you want to reach. Consider combining different products to achieve impact. Define dissemination and transfer strategy from start of the systematization process (link to communications). How will the project be systematized (data collection methods, reflection workshops, field research, etc) needs to respond to these potential knowledge products.
C. What else should you keep in mind?
Systematization is a process, not only a product. Because the process (in particular the reflection workshops) involve various stakeholders from the start, you are capturing their collective knowledge (not just the thoughts of one consultant), which in itself is a collective and participatory learning experience.
When you embed that collective knowledge into an attractive, modular and user friendly product, you can reach audiences beyond the main project stakeholders with more effectiveness.
If incorporated into the project cycle, the systematization becomes part of a daily reflection and learning process where we are learning before, during and after our work, rather than an additional effort.
Because you start with the demand for the knowledge, the process and the end product are more relevant and has more potential of real impact
Examples & Stories
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Who can tell me more?
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Related Methods / Tools / Practices
After Action Review
Resource Pack on Systematization of Experiences
Jara, Oscar; “Theoretical and practical orientations for systematization of experiences”, Long Term Training Course on Development Education, 2006
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