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Workplace and organisational learning in development aid: a case study of a Belgian development agency

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:59 authored by Huib Huyse
This thesis investigates workplace and organisational learning over the period 2000-2010 in a Belgian development agency (VVOB), involved in the implementation of educational development projects. It explores some of the structural causes of the perceived learning deficit at the project and the agency-wide level, and links it with similar findings in other development agencies. For the project level, two case studies in Zimbabwe (ZimPATH and St2eep) were selected in which the project’s management invested significantly in team learning. These practices were put against the learning support activities that the head office was catering for. The study follows a qualitative case-study design inspired by phronetic-based research (Flyvbjerg, 2001), and utilises a mixed method approach to data collection involving a variety of research instruments. The author of the thesis worked in different positions in the field and in the head office (1997-2007). An improved version of the concept of learning patterns (Sterck, 2004) is introduced to gain insights in the tenacity of learning practices. It is derived from an in-depth analysis of the underlying characteristics of the formal and informal learning activities. Important drivers of the observed learning patterns are argued to be axiological in nature. These result in strongly diverging views about why learning should happen, what should be learned, and how learning should be organised. These views are captured and analysed through a newly constructed concept, the learning support framework. The findings for project level learning are multiple and point at the importance of both intra-organisational and external factors. The working environment of the two case study projects was characterised by internal (micro-political) and external (institutional and socio-economic) sources of pressure that seriously complicated learning processes. However, evidence is provided that both project teams managed to develop powerful learning processes. The ‘situated’ learning patterns of ZimPATH and St2eep shared a view of learning as a strategy to deal with the complexity of work. Knowledge was regarded as a process, with a focus on knowledge creation and the use of local knowledge. Both projects integrated learning in their daily practice via the extensive use of social learning practices and by creating conducive conditions for implicit learning. The bulk of these practices was going under the radar in the head office. It treated implicit learning rather passively and it hardly addressed the structural factors hindering such learning. As a consequence, teams without skills and insights into workplace learning were largely left on their own. The analysis of agency-wide learning in VVOB confirms research that indicates that ‘tacit knowledge does not travel easily’ (Gertler, 2003, p.84). The strong bias towards vertical learning processes, ICT-solutions and the codification of knowledge created a bureaucratic learning pattern. It did not stop VVOB from entering into a profound crisis. A severe institutional emergency, triggered by external pressure of back donors and institutional partners in the years 2005 and 2006, together with changes in the management brought the momentum for change. The resulting improvements in learning at the field level were, however, not replicated for agency-wide learning. This is linked in the thesis with a lack of ‘institutional proximity’ (Gertler, 2003). Initiatives introducing changes in existing learning practices are deemed to face fierce resistance unless they take into account crucial internal factors (such as the configuration of views, interests and history with regard to knowledge and learning), and various external causes of pressure. An alternative 3 step approach is proposed. In conclusion, unless development agencies and back-donors become more responsive towards the challenges of sharing tacit knowledge across organisational, institutional, cultural and power divides, projects like ZimPATH and St2eep are likely to remain pockets of innovation.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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