Learning and sustainability - Bryan Hopkins Consulting

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Learning and development services for international organisations
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"Learning strategies for sustainable organisations", Routledge

The book is a research-informed practical guide to anyone who is concerned about supporting organisations in seeking to operate more sustainably. What it says is based on several years of research into sustainability, organisational sustainability and organisational learning about sustainability, and over 30 years of practical experience of designing, delivering and evaluating learning programmes.

Broadly the book is divided into two parts. Chapters 1 to 4 cover the subject of sustainability itself, and Chapters 5 to 11 explore the learning implications of sustainability.

Chapter 1 starts by explaining what sustainability means, acknowledging that it is a highly contested concept. It then explores what are sometimes known as the ‘three pillars’ of environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Across all of the sustainability literature is an acknowledgement that to work with sustainability requires a systems thinking approach. Chapter 2 therefore provides an introduction to what systems thinking means, considering its core principles of multiple perspectives, interrelationships and boundary judgements, considering what these mean for the purpose of an organisation, and then looking at associated topics such as complexity and wicked problems. The chapter concludes with a look at two key systems thinking tools that will form the basis for the practical development of a learning strategy, the Viable System Model and Critical Systems Heuristics.

Chapter 3 considers the political economy of sustainability. Organisations exist within and must interact with an economic landscape. To consider sustainability it is therefore important to understand the economic factors which currently and could in the future drive sustainability.

This leads us into Chapter 4 with a detailed look at what might be called organisational sustainability, and how organisations can behave in order to operate in a sustainable manner. This focuses on the implications of both environmental and social sustainability, and how these can contribute to the economic sustainability, or viability, of the organisation itself.

In Chapter 5 I start looking at how learning can support organisational sustainability. Chapters 5 to 8 show how to carry out a learning needs assessment (using a methodology applicable to any subject). This draws heavily on the principles of Critical Systems Heuristics to develop a holistic approach to developing a 'system for learning'.

Chapter 5 explains how to identify the content of learning (using the Viable System Model). In Chapter 6 I look at the range of formal and informal learning mechanisms available, and explore in some detail the various factors which can affect the quality of learning. In Chapter 7 I summarise some important pedagogical principles which can contribute to effective learning, and in Chapter 8 consider how informal learning can be encouraged and what other structural factors within an organisation can contribute to more effective learning.

In Chapter 9 I show how to use the results of the learning needs assessment to write a sustainability-focused learning strategy.

Being able to evaluate the success of the learning strategy is crucial, and Chapter 10 looks at ways to evaluate learning strategies, again using systems thinking ideas. This provides a radical departure from the traditional but somewhat limited ways in which training is evaluated.

Chapter 11 concludes the book by reflecting on key subjects covered and on the importance of reflection itself.

A few subjects covered in the book

The dimensions of sustainability

Sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, it also embraces seeking to protect social cohesion, equity and basic needs, described as social sustainability. A third dimension is economic sustainability, how to develop an economic system which makes social and environmental sustainability happen.

These are all contested concepts, lacking agreed and consistent definitions. They also interact with each other and are constantly changing over time, a relationship well shown by this diagram of constantly changing fluxes. Learning strategies for sustainable organisations explores what these three dimensions are and what their implications are for organisational practices.

Value-based learning

Sustainability is very much about values: what is important to the organisation, and crucially, to individuals.

Conventional approaches to designing learning often fail to take values into consideration, but by drawing on ideas from critical philosophy, the book shows how to balance three important factors:
  • the technical knowledge required to perform
  • the communicative knowledge required to ensure trusted communication during learning
  • the emancipatory knowledge needed to make sure that what is being learnt aligns with an individual's value systems.

Levels of commitment to sustainability

There are an infinite number of ways in which any organisation can approach sustainability. To simplify things I use a three level model. Attitudes to sustainability can be seen in:
  • Compliers, who follows regulatory requirements and do the minimum.
  • Strategists, who see sustainability as a way to develop a competitive advantage.
  • Visionaries, organisations for whom social and environmental sustainability is the purpose.

Using this three-level model, I suggest different requirements for a sustainability-focused learning strategy.
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