Population Services International

Learning about Learning

In early February, while Chrestien Yemeni was working for PSI’s affiliate, the Cameroon Social Marketing Association (ACMS), he attended a workshop on innovation. The pressures on him were clear to see. He was repeating “yes, right away” into his mobile phone in one hand. In the other hand was a coffee cup and pulling down his shoulder, a work bag.

Five years ago, PSI was already working at a very large scale in more than 60 countries around the world. Today, we are nearly double the size. For Chrestien, in his sixth year at PSI, his workload is bigger too, and a lot more complicated.

He and his supervisor, Jean-Chrétian Youmba, are in their second year leading one of PSI’s newer and potentially very critical activities – piloting a high-profile project delivering treatments for malaria and diarrheal-induced dehydration through village health workers in Eastern Cameroon. The project is a hydra – with epidemiology, supply chains, evaluation research, training, partnerships, and behavior change of providers and caregivers as its heads. Its donor, the Canadian International Development Agency, wants to know whether large numbers of community-based health workers and caregivers can administer these treatments in a manner that reduces child mortality. Cheaper, better, faster.

Leading this initiative would test the training, skills and stamina of anyone. It requires that Chrestien develop solutions never before tried at scale, and work under time and financial pressures a long drive away from his home.

Chrestien has a master’s in public health and came to PSI with more than a decade of experience that made him a gifted trainer, coach and manager. However, these credentials, in and of themselves, are not enough.

For everyone in PSI today, this is arguably the case. Chrestien is the 21st century knowledge worker on the front lines of global health, facing enormous, complicated, unsolved challenges, limited resources and difficult contexts. How, really, can PSI enable him to do his job?

Finding the answer to that question is what Steven Honeyman, director of PSI’s Learning and Performance department, his team, and many across PSI seek everyday in our organization-wide learning initiative. Capacity building has long held a prominent position in international development. There are manuals, toolkits, theories, websites, books, workshops, networks, e-this, m-that, projects, programs, agencies and high-level goals dedicated to it. There is no shortage of learning about learning.

Why is it then that learning about learning is turning into one of the most valuable initiatives in PSI today? Because it appears when and only when PSI succeeds at learning, Chrestien Yemeni can do his job.

Chrestien’s most important contact with learning in PSI came when he won a place in our six-week Malaria and Child Survival Associates training. The training was instituted by Desmond Chavasse, PSI’s vice president for Malaria and Child Survival, and Ricki Orford, now PSI’s country representative in Malawi, who realized that short-term technical assistance was not able to meet the growing needs of PSI’s country programs, which were going through the long and expensive problem-solving phase leading up to the launch and first months of a new health intervention.

When Chrestien completed the training two years ago, he returned to Cameroon with the latest knowledge of what works in child survival and a set of problem-solving and management skills, allowing him to knit together partners and intervention components from research to supply chain management.

When Chrestien or other associates need key documents, they look for them on an internal website that the Learning and Performance team manages with PSI’s Information Services department. Chrestien communicates with other associates and child survival experts through an in-house version of Facebook and takes courses through PSI’s e-learning site, which are both new Learning and Performance applications. Every two years, PSI takes stock of tools, approaches and experiences that Chrestien and his colleagues have had and then works to fill in gaps. This stock taking, called the platform assessment tool, is an important outcome of the Dutch-funded Results Incubator, a learning and regional HIV social marketing initiative in Southern Africa led by PSI's Agai Jones.

From time to time, we still ask Chrestien to participate in a workshop, on the condition that it will make his busy life easier. The one he attended in February was held to transfer the same innovation techniques that Apple or Google uses to ACMS. The aim here was to get teams to come up with novel solutions to problems. The hope is that PSI staff, like Chrestien, will benefit.

Chrestien is now a full-time Malaria and Child Survival associate based in Nairobi. He will be providing technical assistance to other PSI programs for the coming year while receiving mentoring from other PSI Malaria and Child Survival specialists.

What are we learning about learning? Twenty-first century knowledge workers like Chrestien Yemeni and hundreds of others across the PSI world need it, right now.

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