Learning as an Objective Within a Structured Risk Management Decision: A Critique

Shaaban Fundi’s Critique of Mcdaniels, T.M. and Gregory, R. (2004) paper titled “Learning as an Objective Within a Structured Risk Management Decision Process” published in the journal of Environmental Science &Technology, 38(7): 1921-1926.

The authors introduce the complexity of issues associated with managing health, safety risks and the environment. They argue that social learning through adaptive management holds the promise of providing the basis for better risk management in the future.

To support their argument, they provided an outline for fostering improved risk management decisions. The outline includes the key concepts such as learning for current and future decisions as one of several explicit objectives for the decision at hand. They view risk management as a policy analytic decision process that is virtually enhanced by the breadth of and/or the value of the information that is available to the stakeholders.

Furthermore, they put forth the advantages of viewing learning as an objective including potential benefits from the view-point of the stakeholders, institutions involved, and for the decision process itself. The authors link learning through adaptive management to the concepts of structured decision aiding involving different stakeholders. One key aspect of decision aiding in this context involves treating learning as one of the several objectives for the policy decision that you are trying to make. They emphasized the role of learning as a means to foster good decision processes within stakeholder groups.

Strength of the paper:

The authors made an unprecedented effort to support their view point that learning be included explicitly as one of the objectives in a structured decision process involving a broader coalition of stakeholders. They used an example from Mcdaniels et al. in which learning is explicitly considered as an objective within a multiple objective decision analysis for a salmon fishery management decision. In this example three steps needed to treat learning as one of multiple objectives in an analytical term were put forward and they include an objective, a performance measure, and explicit tradeoff.

In addition, the authors argued that the use of a structured decision process helps the basis for a better decision. The steps taken in a structured decision process leads to more informed consideration of the tradeoffs arising in selecting among the alternatives. The approach helps frame individual and collective thinking and inform the limited rationality that influences all decision process. The utility value of the decision at hand is also important especially for a structured decision involving multi-stakeholders each expecting and/or visualizing a different set of values to be obtained from the decision process.

The author finally uses Kai Lee’s example to stress the point that learning is accomplished in the world of real politics through informed negotiation and planning in policy formulation processes. Kai lee places emphasis on creating and implementing alternatives to foster learning for managing environmental risks, particularly within the context of stakeholders advisory groups.

Overall the authors have made a very strong case in explaining the benefits of including learning as an explicit objective in a structured decision process involving multi-stakeholders.

Weakness of the paper:

The concept that value is the motivation of every decision regarding risk management processes is crucial and I feel that the authors have failed to link the association between a risk and the value it pertains in decision process. This is with regard to the idea that most stakeholders (laymen) are unaware of the intrinsic values (non utilitarian values) of the biological system at large and it is very difficult to put a monetary value to them. Because of the complexity of these systems, it is more likely for the decision to favor the more informed (industrial group) rather than the local stakeholders.

The other very important issue was that the structured decision process approach does not assume and/or require full knowledge and formal rationality on the part of the participants. It only assumes that participants are interested enough in the consequences of the decision to think through their objectives and the alternatives as well as they can. This to me is not good enough, I believe the value of focused thinking would be a better alternative as it includes the value of information in the decision making process and it does not rely too much on just the interest of stakeholders.


5 thoughts on “Learning as an Objective Within a Structured Risk Management Decision: A Critique

  1. Miriam J

    …I can’t really agree or disagree with this article. It never really states what the purpose is. You have pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of this article, without ever stating what was in it.


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