After years of expensive programs to curtail substance abuse, little progress has been made. Here's a look at several community programs that are working where others have not by applying principles from complex systems theory and ideas from learning communities.
Several innovative community development HRD programs address a social problem of great concern: the devastating and costly abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (referred to as ATOD). After years of expensive public and private programs to treat drug abusers, catch dealers, punish offenders, and educate people on the dangers of drug abuse, complex problems associated with substance abuse still exist.
The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) of the U.S. Public Health Service has funded several pioneering community prevention processes which are pushing the envelope of HRD principles and practices. The CSAP Training System has developed and delivered training to thousands of prevention professionals in public and private sector organizations, as well as to community prevention workers and grassroots volunteers nationwide. The community prevention programs reported here are based on coalition-building and community development, in line with recently developed concepts of the learning community. They are also in line with emerging concepts of complex adaptive systems, offering even more powerful approaches to community-based prevention efforts.
This article focuses on basic concepts of the learning community and complexity, implications for HRD in the integration of these concepts, and three community programs that apply the concepts to alcohol, tobacco, and other drug abuse prevention, both locally and nationally.
The learning community
Definitions. A community is a group of people who share strong common interests, such as in a neighborhood or a profession. A community has characteristics in common with a learning organization; therefore, Peter Senge's definition in The Fifth Discipline can be adapted:
A learning community is one in which community members "continually expand their capacity to produce the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together."
A community also can be considered a complex open system. It is complex because it comprises many interrelated components; open because it is greatly affected by external forces (economic, sociotechnological, and so forth); and a system because it links inputs, processes, and outputs. Thus, a systems view of a community takes into account all the interrelated components, external forces, interactions, processes, and outputs.
Characteristics. A 1993 study by members of the Learning Organization Network of the American Society for Training and Development identified four systems factors that characterize learning organizations:
* a focus on the whole system
* use of multiple integrated change efforts
* the goal of team and/or system competence
* emphasis on double-loop learning (learning how to learn as well as learning new skills and knowledge).
These characteristics also can apply to learning communities, and are the first four items shown in figure 1.
David Barbee, of the Institute for Technological Solutions, defines other important characteristics of the learning community as a complex open system (see the second four items in figure 1):
* self-organization and collaboration
* distributed leadership
* derivation of responsibilities by community members
* constant flow of information.
Several of these learning community characteristics are closely related to action learning concepts. CSAP project officers Steve Seitz and Susan Hailman point out that these concepts were important design factors in developing the three CSAP-funded community prevention programs described in this article. …