The Necessity of Continuous Adaptation

9th May 2016 Blog

I’m leaving Osca at an interesting time. It looks as if we might be in a curious moment of shift in the social sector. After a good few years of celebrating, funding and advancing innovation, there is a renewal of interest in stabilising and standardising practice. The new is losing its attraction in favour of the stable and the predictable.

This isn’t a shift restricted to think tanks and umbrella bodies. At a conference I attended in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, a participant asked explicitly for a standard national curriculum for informal learning to apply across the youth sector. What was perhaps most surprising about the suggestion wasn’t that one person should have wanted it, but that there were murmurings of assent from across the room.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising.

In his short, but dense, book on assemblage theory, Manuel DeLanda outlines the ways in which organisations are subject to forces that stabilise and destabilise them on a continual basis. Using the language of Gilles Deleuze, DeLanda talks about processes of territorialising and deterritorialising. These are processes that either increase an organisation’s “degree of internal homogeneity or the degree of sharpness of its boundaries” or decrease it.

This isn’t helpful language. The point though, is straightforward enough. An organisation in today’s social sector may experience influences that encourage it to firm up and hunker down, and at one and the same time to open up and change. New technologies that reduce the need for face-to-face interaction might encourage more flexible ways of working with less direct oversight, while funding restrictions might reduce opportunities to introduce changes by restricting resources and stretching workloads.

Whilst both sets of processes are continual – and how they are triggered may be somewhat unpredictable – they can be influenced by actively encouraging one over the other. The recent funding climate has certainly aimed to encourage heterogeneity, new ideas and new enterprises.

Now, after a veritable flurry of seeding ideas, there is a shift towards some more active gardening. The prevalent talk of failure brings pruning and weeding to mind. Ideas of social franchising, merging and scaling recall the careful planting of herbaceous borders. The concerted effort to encourage better measurement against shared outcome frameworks resembles a full garden plan.

As these shifts happen, what remains important is the concerted effort to understand what this all means for the day-to-day running of the many and varied organisations that make up the UK social sector. These organisations are trying to do their best for those who access their services and to provide continuity as well as innovation. Doing that well demands, as DeLanda notes, continuous adaptation. Nothing ever stands still.

The practical understanding of adaptation is the core of Osca’s work. Although I’m leaving, Nick and Richard will continue to develop ways of supporting organisational learning for a range of social programmes and I will remain as an associate to advise on measurement. There’s going to be some change, but also some continuity. Gilles Deleuze would be delighted.