At the end of September I had a new paper published in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, based on my PhD research on organisational learning in the UK Government’s public dialogue body Sciencewise. I was particularly proud to see this little labour of love come out as it tries to give people an insight into my ethnographic work in an around Sciencewise’s public dialogue exercises on science policy. This is, as far as I am aware, the first extended ethnography of an organisation of participation which has been carried out. I also got to play around a bit with theories of space and learning, which I think was productive.
The paper is available to read open access here.
The key argument of the paper is of the need to pay attention to the varied spaces in which organisational learning is taking place. I found that in general it was in more temporary, novel and explicitly experimental organisational spaces that the most transformative and influential learning took place. Whereas is centralised, hierarchical and routinised organisational spaces there were fewer opportunities for these deeper forms of learning. This means that even a potentially radical and transformative practice such as public dialogue – which brings experts and citizens together to debate science policy topics in depth – can give rise to relatively little learning and reflection when it has been routinised and proceduralised to a large degree.
I also argued in the paper that we need to try to understand how different organisational spaces are connected to one another. A temporary, novel, experimental organisational space which fosters deep learning will have little influence if it is not connected to other organisational spaces in meaningful ways. Conversely a seemingly failed or insignificant organisational space, if well-connected, could help to promote broader organisational learning and reflection.
The best example of learning I observed during my ethnographic work on Sciencewise was the result of a ‘theory of change’ process which took place over the course of 6 months. It was a temporary, explicitly experimental spaces which included most actors associated with the organisation, using a fairly standard off-the-shelf methodology. The process seemed to open up the opportunity for new ideas to be voiced and taken seriously, with multiple chances for discussion and challenge. Crucially the process was closely connected to the management structures of Sciencewise, meaning that its outcomes were credible and were immediately put into practice. This eventually resulted in the partial rewriting of some of the organisation’s key aims.