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Conceptualizing learning in the public sector: the importance of context

Wendy Jarvie (Department of Business, UNSW Canberra, Canberra, Australia)
Jenny Stewart (Department of Business, UNSW Canberra, Canberra, Australia)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 8 January 2018




Given the importance of context in shaping learning, the authors argue that there is a need for research aimed specifically at elucidating organizational learning in a public sector environment. To address this need, the purpose of this paper is to present both critical and practical insights into the nature of public sector learning, based on a detailed mapping of learning in a knowledge-based public sector organization.


A purposive case study is employed to explore learning in a knowledge-based organization facing few of the known impediments to learning.


Learning occurred in a range of ways, through both formal and informal mechanisms. Four learning sites were observed: project, program, operational and strategic. Little use was made of formal evaluation products. Learning was constrained by mental models and organizational context and was, thus, found to be strongest in areas relating to the agency’s core business and dominant professional expertise (international agricultural research).

Research limitations/implications

The findings of the study are based on the learning experience of a single public sector organization in the applied research and development sector. Further work is needed on public sector organizations operating in a variety of situations to determine the generalizability of the patterns reported here and to develop and validate the mapping approach employed in the study.

Practical implications

The mapping approach enabled parts of the organization that were not included in the learning conversation to be identified. The involvement of the researchers also precipitated learning activities and consciousness, suggesting that practically-oriented research may be a useful learning catalyst for small organizations.


Learning in public sector organizations is usually approached through the “lens” of models developed in business settings. Mapping learning provides a way of showing what is learned, how it is learned, and its relationship to the public sector environment, characterized by legislation, political variables and ministerial oversight. This approach offers a way forward in the understanding and development of public sector learning.



The authors thank the stakeholders and staff of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, for their participation in this research. They are also grateful for suggestions from the paper’s referees.


Jarvie, W. and Stewart, J. (2018), "Conceptualizing learning in the public sector: the importance of context", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 31 No. 1, pp. 14-30.



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