Social Enterprise – shaping up to be a reservoir of learning?

Sadler, Sue and Rogerson, Robert (2011) Social Enterprise – shaping up to be a reservoir of learning? In: Regional Studies Association Conference 2011, 2011-03-16 - 2011-03-18. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

Social enterprise comprises a diverse range of organisational types and sizes, with multiple ways of ‘trading with a social purpose’ that have been described as a ‘definitional minefield’ (Peattie and Morley, 2008). They have increasingly been viewed by national governments and regional development agencies as vehicles for supporting community and economic growth and resilience. Over the last two decades, social enterprises have been lauded within the sector as an ‘engine of social change’ (Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition, 2010) and promoted as positive models through which to professionalise philanthropic activity or to bring social justice into commerce (Dees, 1998; Dart, 2004; Nicholls 2010). With the fiscal tightening by the state in response to the global financial crisis, however, social enterprises are also being seen in some countries such as the UK and Ireland as potentially important responses to the retreat of public service and welfare provision by the state. In this paper we explore the learning that has taken place through the emergence of social enterprise and its struggle to define and position itself in terms of its relations with market, state and civil society. In so doing, we consider two main issues. First, building on Kolb’s (1984) assertion that learning is ‘the major process of human adaptation', this paper questions why so little has been written about learning in the social enterprise sector and the learning implicit in the hybridisation of commercial and philanthropic organisations (Dees, 1998; Nyssens 2006). In particular we examine examples of new or differentiated practice generated by social enterprise, and consider how this is transmitted within and beyond the sector and to what ends. Second, we reflect on the extent to which social enterprises are indeed ‘learning organisations’, what is changing as a result of this learning, and the potential for social enterprise to inhabit and influence the new training and skills spaces being opened up as responsibilities for skills and training are divested by the state and passed onto individuals and non-state organisations. In arguing that the notion of clear definitional boundaries to social enterprise may be a ‘holy grail’ which is diversionary and unlikely to be resolved, we acknowledge that such debates illuminate the persistent evolution of ‘social enterprise’ and contribute to a permeability of boundaries that itself creates a useful learning environment. The dimensions of this social learning environment are examined using Kilvington and Allen’s 2010 model and insights offered into sustaining community and regional resilience.