Learning Organisations and the AOD sector

The last (at least or a while ) in the essay series for Stonetree, this essay discusses the concept of learning organisations in the context of the Alcohol and other drugs sector.  Special thanks to Bridget Roberts is due for introducing me to many of the thoughts and ideas that helped to draw this essay together.

The ideal learning organisation

In this essay the writer will consider the theories underpinning effective learning organisations within the context of the alcohol and drug sector and present a range of recommendations that support the practice of organisational learning.  In considering organisational learning in this context the writer will provide an overview of work in the alcohol and other drugs sector, learning within the alcohol and other drugs sector and identify the key features of an ideal learning organisation operating within the alcohol and other dugs sector.

Learning Organisations – A definition

While there exists a raft of literature canvassing the idea of a learning organisation, written to meet the needs of a multiplicity of disciplines and industries, the common concept of a learning organisation pertains to how organisations manage both individual and collective learning.  Peter Senge one of the most cited writers in regards to the learning organisation identified five learning disciplines that were integral to effective learning organisations:

“Personal Mastery — individuals learn to expand their own personal capacity to create results that they most desire. Employees also create an organisational environment that encourages all fellow employees to develop themselves toward the goals and purposes that they desire.

Mental Models — this involves each individual reflecting upon, continually clarifying, and improving his or her internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape personal actions and decisions.

Shared Vision — this involves individuals building a sense of commitment within particular workgroups, developing shared images of common and desirable futures, and the principles and guiding practices to support the journey to such futures.

Team Learning — this involves relevant thinking skills that enable groups of people to develop intelligence and an ability that is greater than the sum of individual members’ talents.

Systems Thinking — this involves a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline helps managers and employees alike to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world.”

(Senge 1992 cited by du Plessis et. al. 1999)

This approach to organisational, knowledge and learning requires both an individual and organisational commitment that often challenges notions of traditional hierarchical organisations.  Additionally the development and maintenance of an effective learning organisation requires a commitment of time and resources to consult, measure, reflect upon, evaluate and disseminate learning throughout the organisation.

Welcome to the alcohol and other drugs sector

The development of an effective learning organisation within the alcohol and other dugs sector is fraught with obstacles.  Roche and Pidd (2010) in their work examining workforce development in the Australian alcohol and other drugs sector identified a number of issues that impact upon the sector including:

  • Difficulties in recruiting and retaining suitably qualified individuals
  • Significant barriers to accessing in-service training for staff
  • Limited or no access to supervision and mentoring opportunities
  • Insufficient funding to mange organisational knowledge, support training or undertake evaluation

(pp. 56 – 69)

Work in the alcohol and other drugs sector then, occurs within a context of sectorial deprivation, lacking enough suitably qualified and motivated people at the same time that the sector also lacks the resources to adequately support either individual or organisational learning.  This is despite the enormous imperative for the sector to be good learners both as individuals and within our organisations.  The quote below taken from a blog article citing the importance of personal learning networks within the alcohol and other drugs sector demonstrates the pressures upon both organisations and individuals to stay abreast of a changing environment:

 “Work in the Alcohol and other Drugs sector occurs in a context of continuous change. New drugs and trends emerge, treatments are discovered or refined and we are continuously reviewing and revising our knowledge base.  We need to stay abreast with this onslaught of knowledge in order to remain relevant to our clients, but here is the catch: Our professional body of knowledge is only ever going to get larger, not smaller.”

(Gleeson 2010)

In addition to the scarcity of the necessary resources required to support an effective learning organisation within the alcohol and other drugs sector, another potential roadblock arises when considering a shared vision.  Alcohol and other drug use within our society remains a contentious and often emotive issue, with divisions in our community about the nature of drug use, drug problems and how we as a society should manage them, reflected in the alcohol and other drugs sector.  Bringing such a diversity of views together within an organisation in order to develop a shared vision needs to be managed carefully and consciously with an understanding that progress towards a shared vision may be a time consuming and sometimes frustrating process.

An ideal learning organisation in a less than ideal world

In an essay on the ideal learning organisation within the alcohol and other drugs sector, it is tempting for the writer to write of a utopia where the twin resources of funding and time were lavished on the alcohol and other drugs sector in adequate amounts to support intensive intra and inter agency consultation, extensive supervision, mentoring and professional development programs and continuous cycles of evaluation and improvement.  An essay of this sort however would provide little in the way or real world application, therefore the writer has focussed upon what may be achievable steps in reaching the ideal.

These steps include:

  • Consensus building and consultation
  • Knowledge sharing and just in time learning
  • Making the ideals and values of the organisation overt
  • Making evaluation count

Consensus building and consultation

As identified earlier in this essay the alcohol and other drugs sector operates within the context of a diversity of views and indeed subject to a diversity of stakeholders.  Workers of different disciplines and experience, managers, funders and service users themselves all bring different values and perspectives to the entity that is an alcohol and other drugs organisation.  Fry (2007), in his work regarding values and ethics within the Australian drug and alcohol sector identifies that:

“The AOD workforce has an obligation to consider the ethical, social and political dimensions of proposed programs and interventions, and in doing so seek the value perspectives and participation of all groups whose interests are affected.” 

(Fry 2007, pg. 10)

This is of critical importance to a learning organisation in relation to the disciplines of shared vision and team learning.  Consensus building and consultation however can take time and commitment. One way to support an efficient means of consultation however is by maintaining an inclusive practice in the formulation of necessary working groups and committees that are often required in organisations anyway.  By ensuring that such committees include a broad range of stakeholders including service users, staff and managers an organisation can utilise existing structures to build consensus and ensure consultation.  At the highest levels of participation this may enable service users to participate at a board level within the organisation and participate in human resources activities, including sitting on interview panels.

 Knowledge sharing and just in time learning

Roche and Pidd (2010) identify that:

“Another workforce support issue relevant to the AOD workforce concerns the provision of work-related resources. Due to the rapidly expanding AOD-relevant knowledge base, timely access to accurate and relevant information is an important workforce development issue.”

(pg. 70)

 The management of vast tracts of knowledge is a significant barrier to organisational learning in a sector that is time and resource poor.  It may be that technology may hold the key to resolving our capacity to manage and disseminate knowledge within an organisation.

“Think for a moment about your own personal network.  How many people are in it?  Imagine what would happen if you could multiply that number by 5, or 10, or even 100.

The advent of the modern Internet has enabled this to be a possibility.  When I say ‘modern Internet’, I mean an Internet that is accessible, allowing people to not just read a static page like a newspaper, but to meet others, exchange ideas and even create their own unique resources, all with a very limited requirement for technical skills.”

(Gleeson 2010)

Much of the learning that we undertake within the alcohol and other drugs sector is informal in nature.  We learn from our mistakes and our triumphs (reflection) and we learn from our networks, the people we work alongside (team learning).  Technology through the provision of specialised social networks enable us to expand these networks, to record our learning and to disseminate our learning to a larger audience both within and outside of the organisation.  An organisation that enacts policies and practices that enhances access to social networks contributes to individual employees lifelong learning opportunities which can assist in supporting individual sense of mastery, and the evolution of new mental models.  Such networks can also be the vehicle for undertaking discussions that contribute to the formation of a shared vision within the organisation and team learning.

Making the ideals and values of the organisation overt

The values, mission and strategic plans are traditionally the domain of organisational boards.  Often coalface workers will have little or no connection to these documents that espouse a supposed shared understanding of the ideals, values and goals of the organisation.  By integrating discussion of the values, mission and strategic plans of the organisation within more routine practice, such as team meetings we overt the ideals and values of the organisation with staff and invite them to work towards the vision.  In the formation of new strategic plans an ideal learning organisation would undertake to reach some consensus between staff, managers, the board, service users and other stakeholders to reach a shared vision for the organisation.  This ‘flattening out’ of organisational structure is critical to achieving organisational learning.

Making evaluation count

While there remains a strong emphasis upon evidence based practice within the Australian alcohol and other drugs sector, evaluation is all too often an afterthought undertaken to satisfy funders.  Roche and Pidd (2010) attribute this dearth in evaluation to a lack of resources (pg.69).While this may indeed be so, there remains a culture within the alcohol and drugs sector of completing evaluation and then not disseminating results.  An ideal learning organisation can make even scanty evaluation count by ensuring that evaluation findings are disseminated across the organisation, contributing to the organisational knowledge base and discussion, even if that discussion is: “Why aren’t we undertaking more thorough evaluation.”  Inviting this type of organisational reflection can act as the first step in a journey of a thousand miles in practicing an ongoing constructive critique of the organisation.


Alcohol and other drug organisations work in a world of complexity, in often less than ideal circumstances.  The concept of an ideal learning organisation needs to be conceptualised with this complexity in mind. The catalogue of actions presented in this essay is by no means complete, and completely shies away from some of the more ongoing issues such as the scarcity of resourcing devoted to supervision, mentoring or reflection, however an ideal must be achievable or our ideals may lose their lustre.  This essay has offered a number of achievable strategies for enhancing practice within an organisation that promote organisational learning.  As to whether the proposed strategies are ideal is up to the reader to decide.


Fry, C (2007). Making Values and Ethics Explicit: A New Code of Ethics for the Australian Alcohol and Other Drugs Field. Canberra: Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia.

Gleeson, M. (2010) ‘AOD work and personal learning networks’ in Stonetree Harm Reduction Blog https://stonetreeaus.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/aod-work-and-personal-learning-networks/ accessed 11th July 2011

Plessis, D.,  du Plessis, M. & Millett, B (1999) ‘Developing a learning organisation: A case study’ in Journal of Management Practice, vol. 2 No. 4 pp. 71 -94

Roche, A. M. & Pidd, K. (2010). Alcohol & Other Drugs Workforce Development Issues and Imperatives: Setting the Scene. National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Flinders University, Adelaide.

3 Responses to “Learning Organisations and the AOD sector”
  1. Thanks for the acknowledgement, Matt!
    This essay is food for thought as I get further into my new work with Clear Horizon Consulting, working on collaborative evaluations and training with many learning organisations across the community sector – which of course is never far away from the issues that affect the alcohol and other drug sector.

    • stonetreeaus says:

      Thanks Bridget. Hope you are keeping well. Your subject and this essay helped me to pull together some of my thinking regarding organisations, technology and learning, so credit was well and truly warranted. Clear Horizons looks interesting and right up your alley. I hope you enjoy your new adventures.

      Cheers Matt

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