Posts Taged stakeholder-engagement

Ocearch shark research, sustainability and the need to fathom context: A case study

This experience, for me, highlights just how important it is to know your context when developing and delivering sustainability and sustainable development programs. Using the story of Ocearch shark research, I wasn’t always going to talk about context; not until I realised that I didn’t know the story’s context, myself, and still don’t fully…..

What Lurks Beneath The Surface…er of This Blog

If you haven’t heard about Ocearch, it’s an American not-for-profit that researches sharks, generating data on their movement, biology and health. The outcome they hope to achieve is a balancing of protecting sharks while enhancing public safety.

On Australian TV recently, it was reported that Ocearch wished to work locally to study Australian great whites, through tagging and monitoring, as the organisation does in the US and South Africa. The involvement of a man in the TV program whose brother had been taken by a shark powerfully reinforced that Ocearch’s ability to monitor sharks at 15 minute intervals could provide hope to other families in the future that no-one else may need to go through such a terrible pain.

And importantly, Ocearch has committed to making the data available in real time.

However, this great news was negated by CSIRO, the Australian, and Western Australian Governments saying no to Ocearch’s offer of assistance, reportedly $2 million in value. The various reasons given by the parties included:

  • WA’s Department of Fisheries’ program was “fully committed this year”;
  • That the strict ethical and safety standards upheld by CSIRO and Australian researchers may not be upheld by Ocearch; and
  • CSIRO has maintained an active research program with over 250 white sharks currently having electronic tags in Australian waters.

This was going to lead me to write an article about how organisations too often focus on doing things right versus doing the right things and consequently, how this “protection of turf” obstructs collaboration on sustainability and sustainable development programs. And we need more collaboration if we are going to make genuine inroads.

But is it that simple? That Ocearch does some great work but is seen as some kind of threat by governments and their agencies?

Because the more and more I dug, the more I saw a very different side to the story. Indeed, there has been quite a lot of criticism of Ocearch, itself. For an organisation portrayed by some critics being too media-savvy for their own good, there have been concerns raised about the effectiveness of the monitoring as well as whether the tags, attached by harpoons, traumatise the sharks. Furthermore, it has even been alleged that Ocearch’s work in South Africa lead to the death of a bodysurfer killed by a shark attracted to the Ocearch boat by staff chumming the water.

Spending the Time, Upfront, to Understand Context

I’m not even going to try and draw a conclusion on this story; I just don’t feel confident that I have anywhere near the understanding required. However, to me, it emphasises the importance of the commitment needed to understand a context and understand the impacts of our individual worldviews and organisational cultures. This is particularly the case where decisions are to be made that will affect many.

Knowing the context will result in improved decision making and subsequently, improved and more engaging sustainability and sustainable development programs.

I want to quickly show how the Ocearch context could be enriched for the major parties using a brilliant tool called causal layered analysis (CLA). Through considering a hierarchy of root causes to a problem from a number of compared perspectives, participants move beyond the usual systemic or social reasons for why a problem has occurred (the litany) to unearth how one’s worldview has contributed to the problem and even to the myths or unconscious dimensions of the problem.

Following is a hypothetical CLA for the context in which Ocearch and the other stakeholders may find themselves as if filled out by those players:

Ocearch and Media
Government and Agencies
Environmentalists and Academics
Litany (Problem) Loss of too many lives

We know nothing about sharks and their movements

Sharks are dangerous to those enjoying the water Complexity of interaction between people and sharks

Ocearch is playing up fears and harming sharks

Systems / Societal Collaborative and wish to work with governments

Tagging and monitoring with involvement of scientists

Committed to sharing data in real-time


Alarm systems

Shark nets at beaches

Anger from parts of community and media towards governments if there is a death

Sharkfin soup

Gill nets and overfishing

Risk perception (that sharks take more lives than is the case)

Savvy Ocearch gaining much attention from compliant media – like reality TV

Worldview Information is power

Patriarchal government does not know what is best for people

We have the answers – patriarchal view

Man is master over his domain

“NIMBYism” of many people towards sharks

Vital to wellbeing of ecosystem

Media doesn’t work in grey areas

Myths / Metaphors Power to the people! Jaws Okay, cue cameras!

Hence, the CLA could give the different stakeholders interested in sharks an epiphany about why they may be obstructed by one another – simply put, they just have not considered the issue from each other’s perspective and acted accordingly.

Context Fuels Engagement Towards Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Using the diagram below as a primer, too often sustainability and sustainable development programs are developed from the very right of the diagram.  That is, rather than take the time to understand different views on an issue, enterprises go immediately into solution mode, thereby developing programs full of ill-considered actions.  Often efforts are placed into mirroring what “leading enterprises” are doing.  This followership continues to lead to programs that are not only irrelevant to specific enterprises, but just enhance perceptions of these one-size fits all programs being nothing more than greenwash.


Starting at the left, forces enterprises to understand their context – both internally and externally – through good engagement. It helps overcome their collective and unconscious biases.

And understanding facilitates collaboration. Using the Ocearch conundrum as an analogy for sustainability or sustainable, there wouldn’t be government programs separate to Ocearch’s efforts; there wouldn’t be suspicion on the part of environmentalists nor turf protection.  Instead, I would anticipate that not only would the duplication be removed, but there would be more innovative solutions to such a complex issue being trialled and the attainment of real and beneficial outcomes.

Shouldn’t that be how sustainability programs also function?

Further Reading

Anon. (2012). Shark Wranglers’ series premiere: Crew member jumps into the water with Great White Sharks.  Huffington Post.

Brannen, P. (2013).  How researchers are tracking great white sharks. Wired.Co.UK

Hayward, P. (2003). Facilitating foresight: Where the foresight function is placed in organisations.  Foresight. Vol. 6 (1)

Inayatullah, S. (1998).  Causal layered analysis.  Futures.  Vol. 30 (8)

Orr, A. (2015).  WA Government cold on world-class OCEARC H shark tagging.  WA today.

Seelye, K. (2012).  What do sharks do in the deep? Device may tell.  New York Times.

Sunday Program homepage (2013). Questions for the government.

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