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Adaptive, Multi-level Learning In Flood Risk Management: A Case Study Of Organizational Learning Through Stakeholder Involvement

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Alan Diduck (Winnipeg, Canada)

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 11: Key vulnerabilities and security risks,


Flood risk management typically involves multiple objectives and stakeholders, uncertainty and indeterminacy, disputes over values, norms and knowledge claims, and the need for innovation (Mitchell 2005, 2010). In such a context, participatory management has important advantages over programmed, rational comprehensive approaches. One advantage is that it furnishes opportunities for adaptive, multi-level learning, i.e., learning based on management experiences at and across multiple societal levels (Diduck 2010, Diduck et al. 2012). Such learning can help management actors gain insight into the intricacies and dynamics of flood prone systems, develop shared understandings of emerging risks and potential solutions, make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and guide flood management along sustainable trajectories (Berkes et al. 2003, Armitage et al. 2007). This paper outlines a conceptual framework of adaptive, multi-level learning by people, action groups, organizations, networks, and societies (Diduck 2010), and presents a retrospective case study of organizational learning (Argyris and Schön 1978, Levitt and March 1988, Argyris 1990) through stakeholder involvement in five government-led flood risk management initiatives.


The conceptual framework was developed through creative inquiry in an integrative literature review (Montuori 2005, Torraco 2005) that explicated learning processes and outcomes at various societal levels, along with interconnections among those levels. The review synthesized leading constructs from various disciplines, including adult education and learning, organization and management studies, resource management, and environmental planning (Diduck 2010). The case study subject is a community-based organization (CBO) that was involved in flood risk management in the Red River Basin, Canada, and the object is organizational learning that occurred as a result of the involvement (Flyvbjerg 2006, Thomas 2011). Eight semi-structured interviews were held with five of the CBO's executive members. The interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and were recorded and transcribed. Nearly 400 documents were reviewed, including correspondence, meeting minutes, annual reports, technical studies, hearing records, and written testimony. Analysis relied on QSR's NVivo software, and involved coding and grouping data segments based on the organizational learning component of the conceptual framework (Creswell 2014, Miles et al. 2014).

Results and discussion

The CBO's foundational values, goals and beliefs were forged in the wake of a flood disaster. The organization was, therefore, highly motivated and unwavering in pursuit of its goals and defense of its values and beliefs. Not surprisingly then, its involvement in the five management initiatives did not result in learning experiences that transformed its fundamental governing variables. The CBO did, however, experience instrumental, technical learning in pursuit of its goals and objectives. It enhanced its connections with people and organizations having mutual interests, and it broadened and deepened its technical, instrumental knowledge of geography, hydrology, engineering, politics and law. Further, it moved easily from its original administrative and management oriented strategy to one that included more adversarial tactics, including pursuing legal remedies.

These experiences suggest that individual or social learning occurred in the CBO, and that the CBO's organizational frame enabled the resultant learning outcomes to become embedded within and withdrawn from organizational memory (Argyris and Schön 1978, Levitt and March 1988, Argyris 1990). They also demonstrate that the public involvement processes used in the five management initiatives provided good opportunities for instrumental, technical learning (Diduck 2010, Diduck et al. 2012). These involvement processes were typical of those found in state-driven natural resource planning and management in Canada; they were not highly participatory, but neither were they mere public relations exercises (Diduck et al. 2015). It remains to be seen whether highly participatory mechanisms, involving dialogue, deliberation and attention to resolving value and normative conflict, would have triggered a transformative experience for the CBO.

A related issue is the degree to which highly participatory involvement mechanisms might have precipitated transformative learning in organizational networks, which is vital for broad dispersion of innovative knowledge, values and outlooks (Knight and Pye 2004, 2005) and could help further align flood risk management along sustainable trajectories. Similarly, a salient question is the extent to which highly participatory mechanisms would have driven change in the fundamental governing variables of state flood management agencies. If such change involved institutional reforms, or societal learning, these would have far-reaching and long lasting implications (Woodhill 2002, Waddell 2005). Moreover, if the reforms enabled community-based social marketing about flood risks and the development of adaptive co-management approaches to flood management, the implications would include socio-political empowerment among marginalized flood management stakeholders (Armitage et al. 2009, McKenzie-Mohr and Smith 1999). This outcome would serve social objectives of sustainability, but there is a paradox in that achieving such a result depends on overcoming imbalances in participatory involvement mechanisms in the first place (Raik et al. 2008). Disparities in levels of power, resources and capacity among stakeholders affect individual, social and organizational learning outcomes (Muro and Jeffrey 2008). Efforts to promote socio-political empowerment in public involvement mechanisms are thus needed to achieve deep-seated learning and institutional reform, such as policy regimes favorable to adaptive co-management and community-based social marketing.


The conceptual framework and case study show promise for analyzing and enhancing flood risk management, particularly understanding and promoting transformative change and pursuing social objectives of sustainability. However, the framework is highly abstract and the case results are tentative due to the retrospective research design. Moreover, the case emphasizes just one aspect of the overall framework. Further research is needed to empirically test more of the framework's elements using various qualitative and quantitative methods. For example, although research on adaptive co-management has proliferated in recent years (Armitage et al. 2009), its direct applicability to flood risk management requires further investigation. As well, dialogical and deliberative communication in risk management is increasingly prevalent (Renn 2009), and likely offer instructive lessons for public involvement and community-based social marketing in flood risk management. 1. Argyris C. (1990) Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Allyn and Bacon, Wellesley USA.

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