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Emergent Learning and EL Maps™

Brief Description

Emergent Learning is a set of practices and tools designed to help organizations address complex challenges, by pooling their know-how in peer-learning events and then taking new ideas forward to test in their own practice. EL Map is a visual tool that provides a simple and intuitive structure for sharing and collaboratively enriching know-how. It focuses discussion on the experiences most relevant to a particular challenge, e.g., “What will enable a community to become more sustainable?” Or, “What will it take to reverse the rise of childhood diabetes?” EL Mapping enables groups to discover patterns and variations across multiple situations.


Emergent Learning was created in the mid 1990s in response to the obstacles organizations experienced to learning in the midst of complex challenges across time and across boundaries. The initial adopters were principally businesses. Increasingly, however, civil society organizations are adopting Emergent Learning practices.

When to use

EL Maps are scalable for use by small to very large groups. They have been used to structure discussion in a conference of 1800 participants. They have been used to:

  • Convene peers to compare lessons learned across organizations or geographies
  • Draw lessons from a current initiative to correct course
  • Draw lessons from a past project to inform planning for the next oneImprove the quality of “lessons learned” by identifying trends across multiple projects or events
  • Build the business case for a course of action by collecting and comparing past successes and failures

How to use

Although EL Maps are visually and conceptually simple, training is required to use them effectively. They can be used in many different ways, depending on users' needs and situation. Detailed guidance is beyond the scope of this wiki.

Generally, the first step is to develop a Framing Question, in the form of “What will it take to . . .?”, or “How can we . . .? The Framing Question should represent a challenge that matters a great deal to the participants in the EL Map session, and that has immediate bearing on their work. During a typical EL Mapping session, participants share stories about experiences related to the Framing Question, including the actions taken and results attained. After sharing stories, participant develop insights concerning patterns and variations in the factors that caused the results observed. Shifting focus from past to future, participants develop hypotheses about what it will take to get better results – i.e., possible answers to the Framing Question. After selecting the hypotheses that appear most promising, based on the experience examined earlier in the session, participants identify specific near-term opportunities in their work to test the selected hypotheses; and they develop concrete action plans to test them and learn from their tests. In a sustained Emergent Learning practice, participants reconvene, face-to-face or virtually to share their results, develop new insights and refined hypotheses to be tested. The richest learning results from multiple iterations of this cycle.

Tips and Lessons Learnt

Selection of the Framing Question is vital to an effective EL Mapping session.
EL Mapping sessions can start in any quadrant of the map, depending on circumstances.

Examples & Stories

  • The Watershed Research and Training Center, Hayfork, California, and its partner the USDA Forest Service used EL Mapping to draw lessons from a past forest stewardship project to figure out ways to optimize harvest and forest health objectives in a current project.
  • A group of grantmakers, convened by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, used EL Mapping to improve the ways they support seasoned nonprofit leaders.
  • A global corporation used EL Mapping to learn from its development of supply chains in various regions to improve its practices when entering new geographies.

Who can tell me more?

  • Bruce Boggs (bboggs [at]

After Action Review(AAR) on the toolkit and again at
Action Review Cycle (Before and After Action Review)


Emergent Learning
EL Maps
Growing Know-How in Networks (Coming Soon)
Emergent Learning in Adaptive Management (Coming Soon)
Signet Research & Consulting, LLC


Photo or image credits

emergent_learning_el_map.txt · Last modified: 2018/07/08 15:18 (external edit)