Academic journal article Rural Society

From Organisational Learning to Social Learning: A Tale of Two Organisations in the Murray-Darling Basin

Academic journal article Rural Society

From Organisational Learning to Social Learning: A Tale of Two Organisations in the Murray-Darling Basin

Article excerpt

Human use of natural resources has been on an unsustainable trajectory for far too long (Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, 2005), and this needs to change (Fischer et al., 2007). Our workplaces provide opportunities for the kinds of interactions needed to make advances towards a more sustainable future (Senge, Laur, Schley, & Smith, 2006). Yet it is too easy for organisations to remain driven by bottom line financial imperatives, ensuring our global soci- ety remains stuck on its unsustainable trajectory (Gray, 2006). Even the recent fervour for organ- isations to account for their performance against the triple bottom line (TBL) seems to have had little impact on the pursuit of a more sustainable future (Milne, Tregidga, & Walton, 2009). This paper explores the experiences of two organisa- tions, Murrumbidgee Irrigation (MI) and Murray Catchment Management Authority (CMA), which had been charged with natural resource management (NRM) responsibilities within the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) of Australia. Both organisations sought to create a workplace envi- ronment where staff were encouraged to interact with each other to reflect on their organisation's purpose and performance, at a time when much of broader society was demanding efforts to avert unsustainable water use in the MDB.

The reflective analysis presented in this article focuses on a common thread that links the two organisations' experiences. That common thread is the link between the concepts and theory of organisational learning (Argyris & Schön, 1978) and social learning (Keen, Brown, & Dyball, 2005). Both case study investigations involved the use of organisational learning theory to assess the extent that organisational cultures had changed, and that critical assumptions had been challenged. It was clear that the pursuit by both organisations for greater sustainability in the use of natural resources required an extension of their organisational scale learning experiences to society more broadly as they engaged with other organisations and individuals responsible for NRM. In Murray CMA's case, there was a clear realisation that to achieve their organisational purpose, their tasks were much more focussed on people management than on managing the use of natural resources directly. Their organisa- tional learning experience involved a challenge to the workplace cultural focus on the bio-physical sciences, and the need to develop organisational skills and strategies to more effectively engage and build capacity of natural resource managers in the broader community. They adopted social learning as a key concept to pursue this agenda.

The contribution that this analysis provides revolves around the concept of 'triple-loop' learn- ing (Tosey, Visser, & Saunders, 2012), which is associated with social learning (Keen et al., 2005), and the extent that this is qualitatively differ- ent from 'double-loop' learning, a key concept within organisational learning theory (Argyris & Schön, 1978). The article begins with further explanation of these concepts, their origins and use, before introducing the research projects that form the basis of my analysis, and how they both evolved through the use of action research meth- ods. I then present the two organisations' experi- ences as brief narratives and discuss my reflections in terms of the links between organisational learn- ing and social learning.


From organisational learning to social learning

Learning is necessary for sustainable development (Scott & Gough, 2004), which suggests that the achievement of sustainability involves an ongo- ing process of social change (Robinson, 2004). For researchers keen to practise their art in a way that might enhance sustainability, the recent 'learning turn' in the social sciences allows our engagements to be framed as interactions where all involved can learn - those doing the research, as well as those being researched (Bebbington, Brown, Frame, & Thomson, 2007). …

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