Creating Continuous Conversation: Social Work and the Learning Organisation Liz Beddoe, University of Auckland, New Zealand PEPE Edinburgh 2008
Aims of presentation
Consider the impact of learning discourses
Critically examine the ideal of the learning organisation
Present findings from a qualitative study
Learning Discourses and Social Work Social workers in the world of practice Talk at the frontline Micro Social work in organisations The learning organisation Meso Social work in society Lifelong learning Macro
Lifelong learning: origins
Part of ‘manifestations of the ideology of human improvement’ late 15th century (Welton 2005,pp.1-3).
The discourse of the learning society is worth careful and critical scrutiny (Coffield, 2002; Olssen, 2006)
The emergence of ‘Lifelong learning’ in official policy can be linked back to post-war changes in worker education (Casey, 2003)
Part of the political rhetoric of the ‘information society’ and the ‘knowledge society’ with its explicit links to neo-liberalism
Lifelong learning :critique
Learning is an aspect of humanity that can be harnessed to business,
Workers are human resources, or ‘human capital’, objectified in this language but also capable of being ‘empowered’ to work to maximize profit.
lifelong learning represents a model of governing individuals in their relation to the collective… it constitutes a technology of control’ (Olssen,2006 ,p216)
there is a ‘powerful consensus developed over the last 30 years to the effect that lifelong learning is a wonder drug or magic bullet that, on its own, will solve a wide range of educational, social and political ills’ (Coffield, 2002, p.174)
The learning organisation
Strong claim, popular –part of the current vernacular
Emphasises worker empowerment but has been promoted during era of strong managerial control of worker learning
Aims to foster continuous improvement and use “mistakes’ for learning
Popular in social work because provides rhetorical comfort to senior managers needing to harness learning to reduce risk
Critical views on the learning organisation
Four consistent points of challenge:
the domination of the organisation as the site of learning (Fenwick 1998; Field 1997);
the dominant role of managers (Coopey, 1996; Fenwick,1996;)
cautions about the problem of power in worker empowerment (Casey 2003; Owenby 2002; Field 1997);
and the preponderance of instrumental approaches to workplace learning (Battersby 1999; Reich, 2002).
Talk at the frontline
Today’s paper part of a qualitative study of continuing education in social work in new Zealand with a focus on frontline views
My interest in how social workers and managers with social work backgrounds were addressing CPE issues during a time of great change in NZ social work
The current study
40 participants in a mixture of individual and group interviews
Social workers employed in health services, child protection and NGO agencies
The New Zealand Context
About 7000 social workers
Basic qualification was a 2 year diploma until 2006, though many with degrees
Registration legislation passed in 2003, began in 2004
Basic qualification is now 3 year BSW, university social work degrees are 4 years
Key questions Does the organisation learn from us? Worker cynicism re LLL Learning from mistakes ? Feedback in low trust environment? Impact of constant change Talk at the frontline What learning is valued? Learning for what? Learning as organisational tool of compliance and discipline Risk management-technologies of learning Learning to love change The learning organisation Learning for whom? Who benefits? Continuing education Professional accountability Reflexivity and responsiveness Lifelong learning
The findings : four main themes:
the learning discourses are acknowledged as influential but practitioners recognise there is a cost and are somewhat cynical ;
(2) the ideal of regarding practice mistakes as opportunities for learning is ‘espoused theory’ not ‘theory in action’;
(3) feedback loops are unlikely in low trust environments; and
(4) human services organisations are far too unstable to manage continuous improvement.
Learning discourses are acknowledged as influential but practitioners recognise there is a cost and are somewhat cynical Managerial philosophy is certainly that everybody should keep on learning and blah blah blah and everybody should keep on working 60 hours a week too! (Social Work Manager, health care)
Mistakes as opportunities for learning- is ‘espoused theory’ not ‘theory in action’; I mean we just get hammered if there is a mistake and the heads go for the chop, we get hammered, the front line gets hammered, certainly management don’t take it on the chin because they make sure it goes down to you. It would be nice to learn from other people’s mistakes as well. (Statutory supervisor
Feedback loops are unlikely in low trust environments
[The current climate has ]created a level of fear on behalf of lot of people that I work with, in other professions too, is that you are being watched and scrutinised so I have probably seen more of a survival thing come out really, and I think when you are in survival mode that is not a good environment for learning, you want learn from each other in that way but everyone is too scared to show that they are stupid. (Senior practitioner, health)
human services organisations are far too unstable to manage continuous improvement.
I am not sure why this is I don’t know if its to do with the managerial philosophy but what we hear in health is: ‘this year we are going to be striving for this particular way of delivering a health service’ and so you might well think oh good okay we will need to up skill people in blah blah blah and then next year you are thinking about delivering it some other way. This is what leads me to thinking that we need to actually pull back inside the department, and inside the profession, and make some decisions for ourselves about what’s needed. Because if we try and follow the organisation’s lead we will be running around like headless chooks, it will be down one blind alley after another in terms of what we might need to learn (Social Work Manager, health care)
The ‘Wish list’
Practitioners identified specific learning opportunities related to the focus of their particular work with clients.
Managers and professional leaders indicated two areas where there was fairly broad agreement: the first that there was a need for very local initiatives to meet gaps; and secondly that workers needed time away from the frontline for intellectual refreshment.
Personal growth or focus on risk…
The learning organization 'presents itself as a romantic ideal encouraging workers personal growth and imaginative engagement - yet this discourse continues the workplace tradition of dictating which kind of growth counts most ' (Fenwick, 1998,p.152).
Many workers and frontline managers want to study, learn, research and write but feel time, pressures, focus on risk and lack of value placed on practitioner experience limit their opportunities to tell their stories of good work
Learning from practice stories
in this team there was a piece of work that I thought was exceptional, a really complex difficult piece of work and I would have loved to have supported the social worker and the family to actually do some reflection and write it up and present it but it is like in this place the idea is there, but you have to work 60 hours to just do the life saving stuff
This study identifies that although the ideal of the learning organisation has considerable traction within social work, there are levels of cynicism as to whether it is, in reality, more than a metaphor
It has encouraged organizations to move away from outdated notions of training and it has enabled learning to become more centre stage in organizational activities, thus making professional development less easily expendable,
Social workers and their managers want resources (money, time, opportunities and expertise) available at a local level to meet local learning needs
Continuous conversation I think that that there should be a continuous feedback loop. There has to be a match between what practitioners what and what the organisation wants, because if there is not that is when we lose people and we get practice that is contrary to the sorts of standards and values that we need in the organisation there has to be a joining from the beginning and a continuous conversation (social work manager , statutory organisation)
Thank you for your interest Liz Beddoe, School of Counselling, Human Services and Social work, University of Auckland, New Zealand PEPE Edinburgh, January 2008