Learning as a Social Practice

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Learning as a social practice: what happens when people engage in learning processes?

Russell Kerkhoven, PSO

Overview The main focus of this morning’s sessions was to question the potential power of organizational learning to actually achieve social change in international development. In this first session, as a facilitator, Russel Kerhoven set a background for discussion by stressing how abstract models of learning, knowledge and change are actually being challenged in international development practice. The participants were then asked to split around four guiding themes/ four working groups used as a conceptual preparation for questioning three concrete experiences of organizational learning. The latter were presented a posteriori in three case studies during the following sessions (15-minutes presentations).

The four working groups/discussion guidelines were: 1. Clarifying concepts. 2.‘Deep smarts’ or ‘practical wisdom’. 3. Leadership/Hierarchy (3 different ways of analyzing hierarchy). 4. Interactive Triangles.

Main Presentation and Discussion Points As an introduction, Russel Kerhoven presented his impressions of organizational learning in practice, drawing essentially on his experience at PSO - a network of Dutch organizations aiming at promoting social change and learning with partners in the south using tacit and explicit knowledge. Some important points set the context of organizational learning:

  • There is space for organizational learning. There is wish and ability to learn. All members are potential learners, even if the speed of learning may vary.
  • It is important for organizations to talk about their experiences. Many organizations seek to tell what they achieve and how. Many orgs have concentrated on the brand – less on learning from what they’ve done.
  • Although there are personal expressions of social change, there is no evidence of systematic social change. Organizations rarely integrate partnerships in a pro-active way: they rather accept them as something which is naturally imposed/proposed to them, so they do not automatically participate in these partnerships. Similarly, far from being internally thought through, KM/OL is often adopted from the outside as something that ‘is needed’ regardless of what it really means for the organization. As a result, there is no systematic engagement in Knowledge Management. KM/OL are an add on but it is not integrated. Few orgs have good HR management based on KM principles.
  • OL research among partners show that people are mastering the jargon but not the reality.
  • Strikingly, it appears that southern organizations perceive OL/KM as a correction of their practices, as if they where doing something wrong.
  • While there is a growing passion for constituting networks, many southern partners frighten they might be a new way through which they are going to be told what to do. We love networks but Southern partners see this is the next cloud to be imposed on Southern partners, maintaining Northern domination.
  • Learning concepts are supposed to be circular but managers are opposing this and impose a linear process.
  • Struggling in establishing civil society in the South.
  • There is ‘sense of urgency’ associated to the large amount of money that is being injected in NGOs: such financial influence is indeed disturbing the way societies are organized. In this pressing context, people in the south must be given the opportunity to express themselves, defend their own concepts and self-organize, which is not actually happening at present. A real participation of southern partners supposes a free access to information and more complete consideration of the field (for example of the fact that e-based methods are not always accessible in regions that do not even have access to electricity).

Participants further stressed the fact that there is an ‘interrupted learning cycle’: despite the enthusiasm for networks and ‘telling stories’, once people are heard no change is implemented. The main question raised was then how to make social change happen. Some of the main points stressed were:

  • Organizations must explicitly ask themselves what told stories mean to them and what they are going to do with it.
  • Do people have the means to tell their stories in the first place?
  • The problem of interacting with hierarchical organizations.