Deciding what content to include
Whatever the subject, a key output from a learning needs assessment is a list of what the learning needs to cover. This is often done in a somewhat reductive manner, drawing up a list of tasks that need to be completed and areas of knowledge that need to be covered. The source of this information is often an expert, who although knowledgeable about the subject will be hampered by 'learned ignorance', not being aware of what is difficult about what they do and what are the shortcuts they have developed over the years.
The cybernetics-based Viable System Model provides one way of gathering information about learning content systematically and systemically. It uses a model developed by Sir Stafford Beer as in the figure shown here, which is based on observations about how natural organisms maintain their viability. It proposes that organisational viability depends on the effective operation of five systems which relate to how information flows through the organisation.
System 1 is sometimes called the primary activity system, and this is what delivers value to the operational environment. In the context of sustainability, this may be negative value, where what the primary activity is causes social dislocation or environmental degradation.
Systems 2 and 3 are internal information systems, for coordination and control respectively.
System 4 scans the operational environment for information, recognising where the organisation is causing problems or what changes are taking place in the operational landscape — new environmental regulations or employment legislation, for example.
System 5 maintains the 'sustainability ethos' of the organisation, and informs all the internal systems.
Learning strategies for sustainable organisations uses VSM to identify what content is relevant for organisations at an organisational, team and individual level. It provides detailed information on how to use the method.