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Diary: Learning organisations


DIARYOur new diarist, Tom Boydell explains some of his current work on learning organisations in the social care sector.

I want to start by saying a bit about my background and prior experience. Apart from a short time as a mechanical engineer and a life-changing year with VSO in what was then British Guiana, all my working life has focused on various aspects of learning, training or development within organisations. I particularly like to explore ideas and practices considered, at the time, to be a bit 'way out'. These have included job analysis and competence frameworks – considered daringly radical in the 1960s, self-managed learning and self-development, action learning, Deming and six sigma.

Another such idea has been that of the learning organisation, which seems to be making something of a comeback. I have a visiting post at the University of Lincoln and this month have been busy on an enquiry into organisations in the social care sector that might be said to be learning organisations.

Funded by Skills for Care – the care sector skills council – we are using The Social Care Institute for Excellence framework. This describes characteristics that engender learning throughout – by staff, people who use services and other stakeholders. This learning goes far beyond training – important of course though this be – and includes reflective practice; systematic safe experimentation; innovation; learning from successes and mistakes; networking and partnering across internal and external boundaries; distributed leadership; delegation and engagement at all levels; with an overall emphasis on the prime stakeholders being the people who use the services and their carers and relatives.

We have found many examples of such learning-filled practice. For example one of them, United Response, provides sheltered tenancies for people who need to communicate through signing, and who also have a number of mental health challenges. A personalised communication chart or 'dictionary' is created for each tenant, explaining what somebody is probably meaning when they say or do something, and how one might usefully respond. For example: "When Tom waves his arms in the air when someone is signing to him it means he needs a pause, so we wait five seconds before continuing."

I think we might learn something rather important from this. Here the resident's 'disability' heightens our awareness of the need to be fully focused and make special efforts when communicating. But in a sense we are all 'disabled', in that I am not able to know what meaning someone else is making from what I am saying or doing, nor what they are intending to make happen by what they say or do. Instead I make huge assumptions about what they are 'hearing', what sense they make of it, why they say and do what they do, and so on. And that's when there are only two of us – it's far more complicated in and between groups and teams!

So, we need to create the equivalent of those personal communication charts – exploring and appreciating the effects of what we say and how we say it, the diverse meanings that we are all making compared with the effects and meanings that we are intending to give.

Such processes - which we term 'relational practice' - are especially needed when we are grappling with what are sometimes referred to as 'complex' or 'wicked' problems – with many diverse stakeholders and where apparent solutions now-and-here tend to cause further problems elsewhere-and-later. As Mike Pedler suggested in his recent inaugural lecture at Henley Business School, we have to create "ways of organising, working and learning that enable resourceful people to engage together in processes of inclusion, learning, exchange and collaboration".

One route to this may be through working in networks. Unfortunately however, we often see attempts to set up what is claimed to be a network and then strenuous efforts made to manage and control it as though it were a conventional hierarchy. This just won't work; we need to create new ways of organising and leading.

To this end we are in the process of establishing a forum or consortium for exploring ways of managing in networks. Over the next few months I hope I will be able to include, in these diary entries, accounts of significant progress with the consortium.

Tom Boydell is director of Inter-Logics, a training consultancy with some 75% of its clients in the public sector

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