Practical learning: achieving excellence in the human services

January 23-25 2008 Edinburgh International Conference Centre

Creating continuous conversation: social work and the learning organisation

Keywords: the learning organisation, social work education, continuing professional education

Author: Ms Liz Beddoe (University of Auckland)

The idea of 'the learning organisation' ( Senge, 1990) has captured much attention in the human services field if only because it is assumed that the application of learning organisation rhetoric to learning and development policies will lead to the democratization of workplaces and the empowerment of social workers. In this study, the claims of 'the learning organization' are regarded as somewhat more aspirational than realistic and the claims, therefore, are clearly worthy of close scrutiny. While such notions as continuous improvement and critical reflection are popular concepts within the social work, it needs to be acknowledged that it is a major challenge to maintain these in the face of public ambivalence about the profession of social work and an underlying political intolerance of risk and uncertainty. Furthermore, managerialism in public services and its particular emphasis on the containment of risk, exerts pressures that are directly counter to ideals of empowerment. This paper presents a critical review of 'the learning organisation' as it has been adopted in social work and human services. Qualitative data from a study of the continuing education of social workers in New Zealand reveals that while many practitioners and managers are enthusiastic about the ideals of the learning organisation, their animation is tempered by practical considerations and constraints and many of the less benign aspects of managerialism. The compatibility of the learning organisation in current practice within the socio-political context of social work is therefore questioned. Practitioners clearly want 'learning workplaces' and as educators we need to support employers to build them whilst preparing graduates to work in them. Top-down models however, are generally ineffective in large corporate organisations and it is contended that small-scale local initiatives which engender critical, reflective and inquiring 'continuous conversation' may serve practitioners better.

There is considerable attention paid to continuing learning in social work and social care. Many colleagues have written positively about the notion of the learning organisation. The author's New Zealand research conducted in New Zealand suggests critical scrutiny is nowrequired. This presentation of a critical perspective on the learning organisation will be of interest to educators, managers, staff trainers and practitioners.

Date: Wednesday 23 January 2008, 11.30-12.00

Venue: Carrick Two

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Organised by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services in association with PEPE (Practical Experiences in Professional Education).