Learning on the agenda doesn't mean learning happened

The flight from Amsterdam to Jakarta is 16 hours, but it feels even longer when you know you have to fly right back. I was on the hook to present a research project on growing bell peppers to the Minister of Agriculture.

I was expected to renew its funding.

Except that the 600,000 EUR pilot project only managed to get 2 farmers involved.

Except that the university’s own teams were fighting and dodging the blame for the reason the project sold exactly zero bell peppers.

That’s why, one day beforehand, they’d dumped this hand-off on me, a junior researcher.

The technology worked. Automated greenhouses that grow things faster, better, without chemicals. But Dutch agriculture technology always works in Holland. The government invests a lot in exporting Dutch agricultural technology, because what works here doesn’t always work there. And making it work in other places requires more than just engineering.

Indonesia is 2 million square kilometres (roughly the size of Greenland) with a population of 250 million, and half their economy is agriculture.

The pilot had some wins to show on the engineering end; it worked for growing bell peppers. On top of that, it made a great case for investment, at least on paper. Greenhouses are a big up-front cost, but because bell peppers are a delicate crop with a limited shelf life, they promise high margins.

Except that Indonesians don’t eat bell peppers.

Except that Indonesia’s underdeveloped transport, and distribution infrastructure are a handicap, even for chilli peppers, which they already grow and use. Even though Indonesia’s climate is great for growing chilli peppers, they still need to import them.

My job was to say none of these things.

Indonesia has formal protocols for handing over projects between governments. This one would be handed over at a closing ceremony in the Ministry in Jakarta.

A U-shaped table in a formal meeting room would be setup, with seats assigned with name tags, and a jar of water and breath mints to be shared by each pair of attendees.

The Minister would kick-off the meeting with a welcoming, followed by the representing foreign diplomat, in this case the Dutch agricultural counsellor, with some words on the strength of collaboration between countries.

Every stakeholder that is responsible for the project would be present in the meeting minutes, but only the most senior representatives would speak, and usually they're not too involved in the project. The discussion would be kept at a high level, to remove the potential sting of contradictory details.

Then the project leader would present some of the activities, and selected results. In his wake, the 2 farmers who participated in the pilot project, would say a word of gratitude about the grant they received.

After the formal discussion ceremony, the Minister would leave for a next obligation.

For the rest of the participants there would be an informal walk-about exhibit, showing the tangible technology accomplishments of the project.

The higher goal of a formal hand-over ceremony like this is to empower the Minister to make a call on the future of the project discretely, later, outside of the room in which the ceremony dynamics take place. There are often diplomatic stakes tied to field projects, which need their own time and place behind closed doors to be settled. If all the relevant people are there for the presentation, the information that was shared is deemed to be legitimate, even if they didn’t get a chance to speak or ask questions.

This creates insurance for the Minister’s decision later.  Anything that might backfire can be pointed back to the responsibility of any of the other stakeholders that were present.

This also means everyone knew that no hard questions would be asked. Which is why in spite of the fact that the pilot didn’t work, the university expected the project funding to be extended.

I had been briefed on all of this, and told exactly how much was riding on successfully extending the funding. This could mean another 600,000 EUR to keep 5 of my colleagues working for 4 more years. Or not.

The first clue that the Minister wouldn’t show up came on the agenda that was circulated the day before. There was an asterisk beside his name. But he appointed someone from the ministry in his stead, and the ceremony proceeded.

No difficulties were mentioned during the presentations. Throughout the polite exchanges, and even in the informal discussions afterwards, raising them would break protocol and instructions from the university.

After the ceremony, we all shared goat satay and a few glasses of Bintang beer, and I was on the flight home.

The Minister decided to extend the project for another 4 years, with the explicit request to scale up adoption of the greenhouse technology for bell peppers.

Eight years later, the project continues in some other form, though now it doesn’t grow bell peppers or use greenhouses.

This example above seems like an extreme case, but it’s actually common. It’s not just formal procedures — the same oversights happen at conferences, universities, startup accelerators. Even the interactive sessions fall into the motions of energetic discussions and activities, but still fail to make an impact.

The ARC Model - evaluating peer learning environments
Whether you’re looking to change formal educational settings, work meetings, workshops at startup accelerators, or groups sharing their craft, there is always the temptation to “just make things more interactive”. But this is a patch that masks underlying problems. It doesn’t fix the program. The …

To help catch these mistakes, we developed a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of a learning environment.  It reveals the gaps between what's on the agenda and actual learning outcome.