Paradigm shift needed to see planning as learning in action

By Dr Metusalem Nakale

THE fourth National Development Plan (NDP4), which expired in 2017, identified some challenges relating to planning and implementation. Planning and implementation were identified as being at the core of the challenges we are facing with respect to national development programmes. The problem we encounter with planning is that today’s environment is characterised by rapid change.

As a result, to our amazement, we sometimes find that our plans become useless in the face of such rapid change. Moreover, in some cases the plans we craft do not help us resolve the problems they are designed to address. Consequently, I argue that we need to do more than monitoring and evaluation: we need a paradigm shift in terms of planning towards more dynamic processes, as suggested by the Vision 2030 policy.

The Vision 2030 policy makes it unequivocally clear that change in terms of planning is necessary. We only need to interpret the said policy correctly and start questioning the assumptions underpinning the current models of planning we employ.

The current practice is such that we plan and then implement the plans. The theory-in-use seems to be that you can generate all the insights during the planning stage. Once you have the required insights what is left is implementation. It can be inferred from such actions that the underlying assumption seems to be rooted in the view of a static and objective world.

I argue that such a perspective is flawed. No matter how hard you try, you cannot anticipate social situations one hundred percent, as if they were governed by natural laws. Economists know this better. Over the years they have attempted to make predictions, without much success.

Hence, it is the contention of this paper that planners need to create room for learning-in-action, in situ and create platforms for insights generated in action to be brought to bear on the plans by revising the plans in a dynamic process that, to a certain extent, would fuse planning with implementation, which is what the Vision 2030 document is exhorting us to do when it states that:

Achieving Vision 2030 requires a paradigm shift from sector development to integrated approaches through strategic partnerships. This means that some structural changes may be required, as well as innovative thinking … to move away from developing and implementing a fixed plan, which gets increasingly out of date … towards operating an adaptive, dynamic system or process, not a plan.

However, such a shift regarding planning and implementation as learning, would require changed mindsets, i.e. learning, resulting partly from a new understanding of knowledge and social reality: there is need to accept that some knowledge is generated in action, in the stream of activity during practice, as reality unfolds.

This means that when we are planning we do not have a full picture of the issues we intend to address. Therefore, the need to adopt a learning approach. Of course one can have some information, but we should be prepared to learn more about whatever we are implementing during practice.

Further, planners should be adept at using the insights situated in action to reshape our plans to bridge the gap between what is in the plan and situated reality of the market.

The argument I am advancing in this piece is that we should embrace new perspectives that see critical knowing as generated in action, during implementation. This is necessary as it would enable us, for example, to adjust our plans as we learn more about the unfolding social phenomena instead of waiting for the monitoring and evaluation stage or reviews which take place at designated intervals.

In projects, this means that plans would only be used to initiate projects but some of the critical insights would be generated in action: we would not start out with complete knowledge. We adjust as we go, mid-flight, so to speak, as suggested by the Vision 2030 policy.

The latter advocates the adoption of such a perspective in terms of planning. Insights generated, representing new knowledge, during implementation should be fed back into the process, merging planning with execution, thus marrying theory and practice.        

The planning as learning perspective is analogous to the interpretative research paradigm in which the researcher does not start with a final plan, like in the quantitative paradigm. In the planning approach I’m advocating, planning can be viewed as being in the interpretative research camp.

Moreover, according to this school of thought, there are multiple realities. Hence, the entire process is flexible, providing room for interpretations of the unfolding situation and adjustment during the implementation process as new understanding is gained and is used to inform the plan, as part of the new knowledge that is generated in action.

The current models of planning are underpinned by flawed assumptions about knowledge and by extension, social reality. They are rooted in perspectives that neglect knowledge that is generated in action, which is critical to human performance.

Moreover, those models assume that when a plan is formulated what is left is implementation and monitoring and evaluation at fixed points. They do not see implementation as experimentation, learning as social reality unfolds, representing learning in practice. We should move away from such perspectives and congruent with Vision 2030 adopt more dynamic processes that view planning as learning.

*Dr Metusalem Nakale is the Manager for Research and Capacity Evaluation at the Namibia Institute of Public Administration and Management. His research interests are in the absorption and integration of external knowledge within organisations as well as the generation and application of tacit knowledge.