Learning From Conflict: Lessons From the Salmon Farming Industry

That an inter- or intra-organizational conflict could be a prime learning opportunity may seem farfetched. But not according to this author, who writes that though a conflict may never be fully resolved, organizations may be able to learn how to soften or eliminate the more problematic aspects of their conflict, especially by following the 8 principles she describes below.


The ability to learn from conflict may be critical to the ongoing success of organizations. Complex issues such as sustainability and globalization have increased the pressure on organizations to integrate different perspectives, sometimes even conflicting ones. Yet few organizations readily embrace the learning opportunities inherent in conflict. In fact, most managers are skeptical of a conflict’s capacity to serve as a teachable moment.

Conflict can provide a rich opportunity for learning. Yet it works against learning by triggering defensive behaviour and favouring resolution processes that protect existing positions. This paradox embodies the “promise” of conflict for learning, but also the “reality” of how most individuals experience conflict. In this article, I investigate how individuals and organizations successfully manage the constraints on learning in order to achieve the promise of conflict.


The promise versus the reality of conflict

Conflict’s promise for learning is based on the information-processing view of individual and group dynamics. According to this view, individuals confronted with conflicting positions will explore the reasoning behind each position. They will then choose the position that best fits their decision criteria, in much the same way that a search engine will select sites based on the degree of alignment with the search terms provided. However, conflict research has shown that more complex processes are at work. Conflict may arise from competition for resources, knowledge gaps, or identity differences. But even if conflict begins as one of the more tractable forms, such as gaps in knowledge, it tends to quickly shift to value and identity differences– the most dysfunctional and intractable type of conflict.

The identity perspective of individual and organizational behaviour explains the defensiveness that is triggered by value and identity differences — the “reality” of conflict. In this perspective, ‘identity’ is an individual’s description of him or herself. It is based on the groups to which they belong, like Canadians or Rotarians, and the roles that they play, such as accountant or sister. Most importantly, identity includes the value and emotional importance individuals place on these descriptions of themselves. At the collective level, identity refers to the characteristics that are central, enduring, and particular to a group or organization.

Conflict created by identity difference produces divisions, tensions, and negative responses in general. Over time, if unaddressed, this conflict will dominate relationships and inhibit learning because of the identity-protection processes that are activated. While conflict may be rooted in resource scarcity, knowledge gaps or identity differences, all of these are usually present in any situation. Identity conflict is the biggest obstacle to learning, which is why individuals and organizations must address their identity differences if they are to learn.


Learning from conflict

Below, I show how organizations manage the defensiveness triggered by their identity differences and learn in spite of them. My findings are based on a study of British Columbia’s salmon farming industry, an industry that has been characterized by conflict since it began. I draw on interviews with 47 individuals from 25 different organizations, from December 2005 to December 2009[i]. I spoke to people from salmon farming companies, environmental organizations, First Nations, federal and provincial governments, industry associations and suppliers. I asked them about the issues in salmon farming, and what they and their organizations were doing about them.

Despite persistent conflict, I found evidence that some of the companies — environmental organizations and First Nations — had learned from each other. They were able to continue to leverage their existing knowledge while they experimented and explored new ideas. Through experimentation, these organizations were also able to develop effective strategies for interacting with organizations with different perspectives. Their leaders clearly understood the challenges involved and recognized the learning potential in the situation. As one leader explained:  “…can’t we learn from each other?  Can’t we get over whatever’s keeping us separate, knowing that that’s … the way science works.” Over time, individuals adopted a number of new activities, which eventually became part of their organizations’ practices. These organizations were able to learn from each other, even though their conflicts and differences persisted.

Although my study focused on an environmental conflict, the lessons learned can be applied to a number of organizational situations that require individuals and organizations to learn from each other despite identity differences. These situations include: conflicts on all types of social issues; organizational integrations following a merger or acquisition; joint ventures; and multi-party or cross-sector initiatives. Below, I offer eight promising[ii] practices that illustrate how organizations can learn from each other in situations of conflict.


Promising practices

I identified eight promising practices used by leaders and individuals that can be applied to manage differences and learn.

Organizational Leadership: building the willingness to act

1.                Build robust and adaptable learning capabilities

2.                Encourage learning from a range of sources

3.                Focus on gaps in knowledge

Individual Leadership: building the ability to act

4.                Motivate individuals to act

5.                Pair similar individuals between organizations

Learning Processes: structuring the organizational interface for learning

6.                Agree on rules and hold everyone accountable

7.                Change structure and people as the relationship evolves

8.                Take the time to understand each other


Organizational Leadership

1.  Build robust and adaptable learning capabilities

An organization’s internal learning practices and its prior experience with inter-organizational learning are critical to learning from conflict. In my study, all of the key organizations were very skilled learning organizations. The major salmon farming companies, for example, are all heavily involved in research and development, and have well-established practices for sharing ideas across business units and regions. The environmental organizations regularly collaborate with other groups regionally and globally. One leader described the pervasiveness of collaboration in this industry:

“We’re usually doing that as a group of companies or doing that with the federal or provincial government or with an academic institution.” 

These organizations were all able to effectively coordinate and share information with other organizations, even some with very different identities.

The organizations that successfully learned from others despite different identities were able to adapt their learning capabilities to new situations. They were flexible and open to investing the time and resources to explore new ideas. Their flexible approach and the capabilities they developed through mutual exploration helped them to learn from each other. As one interviewee described it:

“This was the future… We were going to spend way more energy fighting it than if we put some energy into figuring out how to make it work.”

Organizations that learned from conflict had established internal and external learning practices, including ISO (International Standards Organization) procedures, regular multi-divisional or multi-organizational meetings, internal and external listserv, funds budgeted for external research and scholarships, regular sector-specific as well as multi-sector conference attendance, and community forums. These practices, while robust enough to endure, were also flexible enough to adapt to new situations. Such robust and adaptable learning capabilities are critical. By themselves, however, they are not enough to ensure learning between organizations in conflict.

2.  Encourage learning from a range of sources

Most organizations in my study described themselves as collaborative research organizations. The organizations that learned from conflict went beyond “like minded” organizations to collaborate with organizations in other sectors, often engaging with organizations with dramatically different or opposing perspectives. For example, one leader described the importance of engaging a wide range of organizations:

“You can only find a solution when you put different people with different backgrounds and different views of the world together… not any longer the different disciplines within one company, but now the NGOs, and the government representatives, and the scientists.”

In practice, learning from other organizations is never simple, and may be helped or hindered by organizational identity and strategy. These organizational factors are more influential when individuals strongly identify with their organization’s strategy. For example, one organization’s characteristic openness encouraged managers to undertake projects, even with people that challenged its approach, without fear of reprisal. One individual described how his organization’s identity and practices support his work:

“…this is why I’m pretty proud to work for (the organization) … we’re recognizing that we have some problems and we’re willing to change …  if these studies that we do poke us in the eye a bit, well, that means we have to learn from that … there’s no risk to me organizationally … to undertake this.”

Organizations whose identity and strategies legitimize a wide range of sources of knowledge inspire individuals to act in ways that help the organization to learn, despite and perhaps because of their conflicting views.

3.  Focus on knowledge gaps

Organizations that learned from conflict found common interest by focusing on their mutual knowledge gaps. This is a key role that organizational leaders can fulfill, namely creating conditions conducive to learning in situations where different understandings have created conflict. One leader demonstrates how this can be done:

“We agree that there’s concern around this.  We agree that we can constantly change the way we grow fish.  We don’t agree that your concerns are necessarily valid, yet we do agree that we’ll probably be changing the way we grow fish because we’ve been changing the way we grow fish and mitigating concerns as long as we’ve been growing fish.  So let’s learn together.”

Organizations that acknowledge their identity differences while focusing on the shared gaps in their knowledge create the space for individuals to undertake and sustain collective action. For example, in my study the marine biologists from both the salmon farming companies and the environmental groups agreed that more research was needed to understand the extent of the impact of salmon farming on the marine habitat. They were able to agree on that even while they continued to disagree on most other things. By focusing on shared gaps, individuals can distance themselves from the facets of their identities that are different and collaborate around the practices of their shared identities. They neutralize the dysfunctional defensiveness prompted by identity difference, and are better able to engage in productive problem solving.  One individual described how this process leads to collective action:

“We are quite concerned that there are some research gaps here that need to be filled.  That’s also something that you find when you have this dialogue; you can actually better identify these research gaps and hopefully agree where we need to do more research.”

My study underscores the importance of the understanding that at some level all conflicts are identity based. By acknowledging the specific differences in their individual and organizational identities, individuals can begin to distance themselves from these identity differences. For example, through dialogue, salmon farmers and environmentalists learned that despite their different characteristics and approaches, all were committed to protecting the health of the marine habitat. Once individuals are satisfied that others understand — even if they disagree with — they are then able to attend to their common knowledge gaps through shared practices. They and their organizations can then begin to act collaboratively despite, and in the presence of, their identity differences.


Individual Leadership

4.  Motivate individuals to act

Motivated individuals are pivotal to being able to learn in situations of conflict. Because they were willing and able, numerous individuals in my study used conflict as a motivating force to advance learning within their organization. They were willing to act because they believed that their counterparts had much to gain from cooperative interaction. These individuals were able to act because their identities and their organization’s identities were aligned. For example, one interviewee describes how their organization’s position supported their actions:

“…overall, the company – not just me – was quite transparent, quite open … so that was the way we were.  And that helped.  It helped me …”

The interaction of their individual and their organization’s identities, in this case around the value of transparency, made them confident that the benefits of working with unfamiliar and possibly hostile individuals outweighed any personal or organizational costs.

Despite their differences, individuals in conflicting organizations recognized an opportunity to advance their own and their organization’s agendas. Two individuals who had advanced learning between their organizations described their respective agendas in the following ways:

“It’s about … the environmental groups also changing the way they talk about industry …”

“… the data that the farms have about their operations was seen to be confidential, so we had to try to create … an agreement that would open up the analysis, hopefully pinpoint some common understandings around lack of information.”

Inter-organizational learning is possible when organizational practices motivate individuals to change their responses to each other. Dialogue that uncovers significant mutual — but not necessarily identical — gains can become the first stage of how organizations that were previously at odds with each other can collaborate to learn.

5.  Pair similar individuals between organizations

Some organizations are able to make the most of identity differences by pairing individuals with common identities or roles. In one situation, individuals structured their exchanges around the identity of “scientist.” Despite their significant public differences, individuals were able to recognize and respect their professional expertise and find common ground in generally accepted experimental and scientific methods. The experimental protocols provided them with a shared language and practice to bridge the conflict and negotiate collective action. By engaging in actions based on the practices they held in common they were able to manage their differences. The scientific protocols subtly shifted attention to values that they held in common. As one interviewee observed:

“What’s absolutely remarkable is when you can actually get them talking scientist to scientist, it’s like something transforms in the room, in a positive sense …  if you get them down to talking about … what would be the proper …  protocol around this particular experiment.”

Science provided a relatively neutral identity with which individuals as well as their organizations were able to identify. Scientific roles also imply sufficient ambiguity to allow the group to reach consensus on action, while retaining whatever individual beliefs are important to them. For instance, one individual highlighted how the lack of trust between two organizations was mitigated by the involvement of a scientist:

“… there’s still that lack of trust with (the organization) … but the guy that negotiated was a marine biologist … it benefited both of us.”

In other situations, other common identities, including coast community resident and “soccer mom/dad” provided non-controversial language and practices to bridge conflict and sufficient ambiguity to allow for discussion and agreement. Over time, organizations began to take advantage of identity differences. In the previous example, the scientists focused on planning and managing research projects, while skilled issue managers dealt with the day-to-day communication and relationship issues.

The organizations that learned from each other paired individuals that shared identities and assigned tasks accordingly, engaging them in activities using the practices of those common identities. While they continued to pursue their different organizational goals, they did so through collective action and common practice.


Learning Processes

6.  Agree to rules and hold everyone accountable

In the same way that “good fences make good neighbours,” enacting rules and sanctions for breaking the rules is important to inter-organizational learning in conflict.  By developing protocols for communication, with each other and with the public, several organizations in this study were able to set rules for dealing with conflict. These organizations alerted each other to imminent press releases and even crafted joint press releases “so that there could no longer be this sort of ‘he said, she said’ around the issue”.

Establishing rules and holding each other accountable for adhering to those rules reduce the influence of the differing identities. By creating a new role incorporating practices common to each other and to their relationship, individuals essentially create a new, shared identity as collaborators. Over time, if repercussions for breaching the agreement are consistent, uncertainty in the relationship will decrease and the likelihood of ongoing cooperation will increase. One individual described how she ensures certainty in her inter-organizational interactions:

“I do the same process with everybody.  It’s basically, what is your issue?  What’s your concern? Let’s scope it effectively. Are you worried about this and not this? What’s in? What’s out?”

7.  Change structure and people as the relationship evolves

As organizations learn from each other the structures and the people that support their learning evolve.  To facilitate their initial contact and early interactions, several organizations in my study enlisted the help of third parties such as issue managers, facilitators, mediators, or regulators. One-third party describes his role as follows:

“My role was making introductions and getting people interested in having a dialogue … it probably took six months to get to the point where people actually decided to sit down face to face and give this a whirl.”

Third parties help the individuals involved focus on certain aspects of the conflict, but most importantly they highlight their similarities and common concerns. As this comment from a third party illustrates:

“It’s quite remarkable …  how both the industrial interests in a conflict like this along with the interests that are representing civil society … they’re mirror images of each other. ”

With guidance, organizations that learned from conflict gradually shifted from very structured interactions between a few people in leadership positions to less formal interactions between people at multiple levels of the organization and even outside the organizations.  The key lesson for inter-organizational learning is that third parties or trusted external advisers can foster and maintain collective learning activities.

Individuals in boundary spanning roles, be they part of the organizations or third parties, may be more effective if they are less identified with either side of contentious issues.  Moreover, if the boundary-spanning individuals are strongly identified with a helpful and established practice, such as mediation or experimental protocols, they may be relatively more effective in bridging conflict.

The structures and the individuals that support inter-organizational learning must evolve to reflect the changing attitudes and activities that result from the organizations’ shared learning.

8.  Take the time to understand each other

Dialogue lies at the heart of learning from conflict. Dialogue, as it is used in conflict studies, goes beyond the usual notion of conversation. It requires that individuals and their respective organizations repeatedly engage with each other to explore and challenge assumptions. The organizations that learned from conflict were willing to invest the time and resources necessary to understand each other. As one leader summarized:

“I guess the best way to frame it is that no matter what you do at some point you have to sit down and talk with your opponent.”

In my study there were successive instances of individuals exploring deeply held assumptions about their own and their organizations’ practices, strategies, and eventually, identity. By understanding their assumptions, people gained new understanding of themselves and others. With such understanding, defensiveness decreased and individuals were able to explore other deeply held assumptions. One leader describes the outcome of the process:

“The only way to effect any positive outcome is through engagement and working with these folks…. those groups are not going away.  They are in fact part of the fabric of our culture… So, can you find ways to work with them within the environment of conflict?”

Organizations that learned from conflict committed the time and resources necessary to sustain the dialogue over an extended period of time. That is not to say they did not have second thoughts. In fact, these organizations continually re-assessed the value of their commitment to each other. Through increasingly interdependent collective actions several organizations were able to learn from each other and from their conflict, and to continue to pursue their own agendas. As one leader sums it up:

“Respect costs you nothing … you can go in there and talk to your enemy with respect … it doesn’t mean you’re giving up.”


Organizations increasingly participate, voluntarily or in some cases by mandate, in cross-sector initiatives with diverse organizations. Yet they struggle with how to simultaneously manage the inherent conflict and make use of the learning opportunities these interactions provide. In this article, I shared promising practices from organizations that have created mutual advantage out of conflict. By focusing on their shared knowledge gaps or other shared interests, and the practices associated with common identities, managers and organizations may be able, over time, to soften or eliminate the more problematic aspects of their conflict to permit problem solving. While the conflict may never be resolved- indeed it may be impossible to resolve – much can be learned through carefully delimited cooperation on specific tasks. This is the promise inherent in conflict.

[i] I would like to thank Monika Winn and Charlene Zietsma for sharing their data on the salmon farming industry.

[ii] I would like to thank Elena Antonacopoulou for pointing out that unlike “best” practices which rest on the principles of benchmarking and imitating – “promising” practices are founded on the notions of transience and adaptability and provide scope for adaptation to local conditions.