Blogpost 10: RFOs as Learning Organisations: building communities and capacities

RFOs as Learning Organisations: building communities and capacities

By Helen Peterson (Örebro University), Liisa Husu (Örebro University), Helene SchiffbĂ€nker (Joanneum Research), Angelika Sauer (Joanneum Research), Florian Holzinger (Joanneum Research)

Posted on November 17th 2023

As the GRANteD project comes to an end in autumn 2023, it is time to reflect on the learnings, results, and outcomes from this multi-layered and multidimensional project. One of the very last tasks of GRANteD has been to develop targeted recommendations to stakeholders such as policy makers and Research Funding Organisations (RFOs). Some of the questions related to this task, set out in the original GRANteD project proposal (SchiffbÀnker et al., 2018, p. 46), asked: What can RFOs do to impact RPOs to encourage more women to apply? How can RFOs improve processes to foster institutional change and optimize decision making processes? How can mutual learning be stimulated (between RFOs and also European wide, international)? Which good practices can be used?

In this blog post, the last from the GRANteD project, we address some of these key questions, drawing on our experiences from working in Work Package 5 (Formal policies related to grant allocation), Work Package 6 (Practices in grant allocation processes) and Work Package 7 (Characteristics of Applicants). While Work Package 5 involved a policy analysis, Work Package 6 focused on investigating and analysing practices in the RFOs, producing qualitative data (interviews and observations) whereas Work Package 7 collected data on characteristics of applicants and about their perception of the application process through an online survey.

These Work Packages resulted in, and required, close collaboration between GRANteD and the five core RFOs which participated in the GRANteD project. The five RFOs which participated in GRANteD are all key research funders in their countries: Austrian Science Foundation (FWF), Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Polish National Science Centre (NCN), Slovak Research and Development Agency (SRDA) and Swedish Research Council (SRC). The results of analyses conducted in the three Work Packages were shared with the RFOs both orally and in written form, during regular meetings and workshops and GRANteD received insightful contextual feedback in return from the RFOs, which resulted in further deepening of analyses and revisions of reports.

These are some examples of how important co-construction and co-creativity has been in the GRANteD project. Other examples of these type of partnerships and more details regarding those have been outlined in a previous blog post (see SchiffbÀnker, 2022). In this blog post we want to expand on some related aspects of partnerships and collaborations, and to do so from a perspective of RFOs as learning organisations.

Learning organisations

In organisational theory, and especially in the field of organisational change, there is an extensive body of literature on learning organisations (see e.g., Argyris 1993; Argyris & Schön, 1978; Drejer, 2000; Senge, 1990; Örtenblad, 2013). In learning organisations existing policies and practices are being evaluated and further improved and new policies and practices are being developed and implemented in an on-going cycle of change, reflection, and learning. This is in line with what previous research has described as triple loop learning processes (Tosey et al., 2012), referring to an approach to learning which is complex and highly reflective towards values, decisions, systems, and processes and aiming for transformational change. Triple loop learning processes involving gender equality and diversity in RFOs specifically address and mitigate gender bias risks in the research funding cycle.

The purpose of this blog post is therefore: 1) to demonstrate the potential of RFOs to be(come) learning organisations in the field of gender and diversity, based on their own testimonies, 2) to argue for the importance of RFOs to become learning organisations in this field , 3) to encourage RFOs to develop their full potential to become learning organisations in this field, and 4) to provide examples of strategies that RFOs can use to stimulate learning processes regarding gender and diversity policies both within and beyond the own organisation.

To illustrate some approaches of RFOs as learning organisations we turn directly to the five core RFOs which participated in the GRANteD project (FWF, NCN, SFI, SRC, SRDA). During the final GRANteD stakeholder conference in Vienna October 19th-20th, 2023, these five core RFOs shared their testimonies from partaking in the GRANteD project. These testimonies demonstrate how the participation in GRANteD supported the RFOs: in the improvements of awareness raising procedures and trainings (FWF); in the continuous improvements of the proposals evaluation (NCN); in the development of a more equitable and inclusive review process (SFI); in their continued work on gender equality (SRC); and, in identifying a number of problems which provides the necessary basis for correcting these problems and improving the work (SRDA).

Contrary to what it might seem, we are here not (only) wanting to emphasise the importance of the GRANteD project. Instead, we want to celebrate the attitudes and commitments of the RFOs, as learning organisations. These RFOs all, bravely, invited and welcomed an outsider perspective to provide a “critical friend perspective” (Costa & Kallick, 1993) on their organisation and on their own internal policies, processes, and practices, which in itself reflects the dedication to transparency as an important principle, value, and goal.

When continuing to examine the RFOs experiences during the GRANteD project, it is also possible to discern at least two different aspects which indicate that these RFOs are learning organisations within the field of gender equality and diversity, and that they have pursued and achieved triple-loop learning while participating in the project. We will therefore focus on continued exploration of how the RFOs’ testimonies from the GRANteD project reflect their abilities and initiatives to build communities and capacities.

Communities and capacities

Learning organisations not only direct their attention and their activities internally, to develop their internal processes and practices, but also externally. One of the characterising aspects of learning organisations is that they show an interest in their local and broader community and in forming communities of practice with other organisations. They acknowledge the need to be open to the world around them and to build capacities to manage the constant changes in the world outside of the organisation. Van den Brink (2020, p. 388) also emphasises that organisational learning: “requires actors to engage in ongoing dialogues” and learning transfer practices. This necessitates collaboration and cooperation with the surrounding community. The GRANteD project facilitated the development of such a community through which the RFOs could develop and share their capacity to create and use knowledge (cf. e.g., Wenger, 1998; Reidl et al., 2022). The GRANteD Stakeholder Committee provided an important arena for these activities (SchiffbĂ€nker, 2022).

This opportunity to be part of a community was appreciated by the core RFOs, as expressed by one of the emerging RFOs: “Together with our partners we had a chance to exchange our experiences in terms of, among others, formal gender policies implementation and also its effects” (NCN). The same RFO continued to explain the importance of this: “A significant part of the project was the analyses of data from a case study from each partner [i.e., of each RFO]. It gave us a deep insight into different measures taken by our partners in terms of proposals assessment and types of calls announced” (NCN). The analyses in GRANteD were thus welcomed by the RFOs, including the policy analysis (Husu & Peterson, 2022) the analysis of practices (SchiffbĂ€nker et al., 2023a) and the applicant survey (Holzinger et al., 2019). For the emerging RFOs the learnings from GRANteD directly fed into their ongoing work: “We are currently working on the implementation of the panel evaluation [
] with respect to the identified shortcomings from the project GRANteD” (SRDA).

To optimize the assessment process, RFOs continuously develop and implement new policies/strategies/measures – and monitor and evaluate them. They learn from each other: RFOs with emerging GE policies learn from experiences of advanced RFOs – and show great interest in the progress in other RFOs. Likewise, the will to contribute to this broader research funding community was also clearly reflected in the core RFOs. One of the gender equality leaders in the field of gender equality stated in their testimony: “We are proud over what we have achieved, and we want to share what we have learned over the years” (SRC). The reasons for participating in GRANteD was described in the following manner: “We saw this as an opportunity to learn more about how we can improve our work on gender equality and at the same time contribute to research that could potentially promote gender equality at a larger scale across Europe” (SRC). These RFOs engage in the research community to continue to develop not only their own but also others’ awareness and understanding of gender equality. This was done for example by using iterative and innovative policy and programme design to educate researchers and reviewers about the causes and effects of bias and the importance of considering broad ranges of outputs (SFI).

These RFOs act as extensive and significant knowledge producers on gender equality and as important actors within the research funding community, as example the following can be mentioned: the GE observation studies and reports in panels (SRC), the extensive analysis of funding outcomes (FWF), and the implementation of the first Polish survey on GE in research (NCN).

By creating a community for these RFOs, GRANteD offered increased possibilities for both leading and emerging RFOs to take on new research findings that have been used for “building knowledge and capacities among our own staff” (SRC). Similarly, an emerging RFO explained that GRANteD: “gave us a great opportunity to work on identification of the potential occurrence of inequality as well as learning about its potential sources” (NCN). The same RFO continued to explain: “The results of the analyses of the data provided by our agency allowed us to see how our processes and policies can be seen from the broader perspective” (NCN). One of the RFOs, one of the gender equality leaders, described the GRANteD project as an “exceptional opportunity to look at our policies and processes and review these more closely with reference to fairness and equity” (SFI). Another of the gender equality leaders described their work as: “an on-going process and as work-in-progress” (FWF). This is work that needs continual capacity building and “to have external reference points is very helpful in this work” (FWF).

The policy packages adopted, implemented, and evaluated by these RFOs have included innovative policies to “fix the numbers”, i.e., to increase the number of women among applicants and reviewers – and ultimately, and most importantly – increasing the number of women among the grantees. Other policies have focused on “fixing the organisation” and targeting primarily the peer review process and the panels – and the practices related to the phase of the grant allocation process in which the reviewers assess and grade the applications and the applicants. Finally, other policies aim to “fix the knowledge”, i.e., to influence both applicants’ and reviewers’ definition and understanding of excellence and introduce gender-in-research-and-innovation. And these are only some examples of the innovative gender equality policies with great potential to contribute to fair assessment processes.


We have here used the concept of organisational learning to highlight how RFOs not only adopt and implement gender equality and diversity policies, but also how they continue to develop, revise, and reform these policies, based on a triple loop, transformational, learning approach. Together, the five core RFOs in GRANteD have adopted an impressive range of different policies, put in place to prevent gender bias risks and to optimize the assessment process – making it fair, efficient, reliable, and free from nepotism and bias. One of the RFOs has implemented its first ever gender equality plan. Another RFO has completely overhauled its assessment system. Other RFOs have implemented smaller but significant changes in their policies and practices during the project. This illustrates and reflects how these RFOs keep developing and changing their policy packages. All five RFOs could therefore be categorized as learning organisations regarding gender equality and diversity.

The policy analysis performed in Work package 5 has some limitations – one of them being that it documented the policies adopted by the RFOs at a certain point in time. This is a limitation because all RFOs have, during the project time of GRANteD, implemented significant changes. The policy analysis therefore quickly became outdated, something which we however welcome – it is a sign of development and progress! Gender equality policy is a dynamic area and should be understood as an ongoing process rather than a static condition or linear process in organisations (cf. Van den Brink, 2020).

The analysis in Work package 5 also highlighted the importance of contextual factors. The contexts in which the RFOs are positioned differed greatly, which was clear from the beginning, and these differences were also part of the selection of which RFOs should be included in GRANteD. The implications of these contextual differences also become visible in the final testimonies of the RFOs, where some of the challenges and struggles – and possibly also frustrations – came through. One of the RFOs, initially characterised as emerging in the field of gender equality and diversity, stated in their testimony while reflecting on the need to improve practices and processes: “It is sometimes hard to enforce them [these changes]”. Small steps were however done and the importance of GRANteD was explained: “We believe that the results from the GRANteD project will also help us appeal to the need for these changes. We consider this to be the greatest benefit of our involvement in GRANteD. Thank you!” (SRDA)

However, also the gender equality leaders emphasised the importance of not settling with the progress so far, as explained by one of them: “We also recognise that we need to work continuously in order to maintain the progress that we have made, and to advance our work on gender equality further” (SRC).

As these testimonies from the five RFOs demonstrate they are aware of the importance of keeping up with the development in the field and build on the research being done in projects such as GRANteD. They are also highly aware of monitoring and evaluating their own policies and the implementation of them.

The results from GRANteD can support RFOs, as learning organisations, in these monitoring and evaluation efforts and in their work with identifying and targeting gender bias risks. GRANteD has produced both quantitative and qualitative results which contribute to further our understanding of gender bias risks and how to mitigate those. In Work package 5 we for example developed a grid for detecting gender bias risks in research funding and research assessment. We also developed a complement to the gender bias risk grid: a model of gender bias risk areas in the funding process (Husu & Peterson, 2022). This figure highlights that there are potential risks for gender bias throughout the funding cycle, and that gender equality policies may or may not address them. This also explains the array of different policies implemented by the RFOs. Gender equality policies need to address the whole funding cycle.

Further, we have identified in Work Package 6 some challenges that emerge when implementing new and innovative policies in practice, like formulating clear policy targets and communicating them well to enable applicants and reviewers to understand and apply new policies (SchiffbÀnker et al., 2023b). The inclusion of the perspective of the applicants (in Work Package 7) provided additional feedback for RFOs on their assessment procedures as well as more information about the target groups of their funding programmes. It made evident that the amount of support is highly important for submitting a grant application and also has an effect on success chances. But as critical as support is, it is also not evenly distributed among applicants, and we assume also not between potential applicants (those that did not submit an application but could have done so) and actual applicants (those who submitted their applications) (Holzinger et al., 2019).

To conclude: We have seen considerable efforts being made by the core RFOs as they act as learning organisations in the field of gender equality and diversity. They are developing their awareness and understanding of gender equality, by implementing strategies, various measures, and evaluating the success and impact of these. These RFOs are already today, or have the potential to become, learning organisations in the field of gender and diversity policy, meaning that they constantly develop and implement innovative measures, activities and policies and are driving change towards gender equality within the realm of their own organisation and beyond.


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