Social Learning in Organisations

Submitted by Ben Smith 23rd July 2011 11:33

 Goold (2006) describes barriers to learning in organisations as energy to be freed up rather than an obstacle to be overcome. In her paper she identifies a number of barriers to learning that may occur. E.g.

  • Bias for action: time is filled up with 'urgent' tasks allowing little time for reflection
  • Presence of undiscussables: poor handling of anxiety and fear resulting in defensiveness that is "anti-learning"
  • Cultural biases
  • Norms that promote taking positions over listening, respecting difference, emergence, and co-creation of knowledge
  • Working with power: allowing existing power relations to be discussed and questioned
  • Learning to unlearn and coping with 'not knowing'
  • Failing to practice what we preach
  • Funding constraints: funding is tied to specific projects that focus on first order learning because planning and operational tools focus on the operational level and do not enable innovative learning initiatives.

Adaptation to climate change is fraught with problems in any society at any level. The time scale for planning is unfamiliar as we don't tend to make such long term decisions, many actors with different opinions, ideas and agendas are involved and there is potential for conflict if it is not managed well and there is often a lot at stake, There is also the uncertainty in the scientific data. Overall it will get hotter (probably) but what do we know about the variability? Will it be more windy, less windy, flood more or get drier? What can we be certain enough about to enable us to make big decisions about how we should adapt? People are, understandably reluctant to commit large sums of money and time to an issue they do not fully understand or necessarily believe to be a top priority when there are more tangible and immediate concerns to deal with. In addition, there is even greater incompleteness in our understanding of how natural and human systems interact. Appropriate adaptive management for climate change involves cycles of learning from experience. Processes of learning require strategic thinking and investment if they are to go beyond simple first order tweaking of business as usual processes to innovative and transformative second order learning.

Goold (2006) also describes conditions that support second order ('transformative') learning in organisations:

  • Individuals are supported to be more reflective in their work
  • Learning, including mistakes are shared openly
  • Experimentation and creativity is encouraged
  • Diversity and difference is encouraged
  • Attention is paid to the quality of relationships and skilful conversation
  • Linkages with other stakeholders are made consciously and actively
  • Basic assumptions and mental models are questioned rather than limiting inquiry to the existing paradigm. This may include the organisations values and norms.
  • Collective spaces are available and 'loose' enough to allow new insights and meanings to emerge which are collectively acknowledged; which may lead to greater awareness, improved practice or shifts in behaviour.