Elephant that is!
1997 in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania and our guide pulls our Land Rover up close to a small group of elephants. Sheltered in the middle of them, his mum and Aunties, is a tiny baby – all 200 and some pounds of him. We are warned that we are too close and may need to pull out quickly, but can stay and watch until Mummy and the Aunties show signs of restiveness. They watch carefully and protectively as we sit still, admiring their size and the bizarre sight of the little one, so young he has no real control over the un-coordinated tube will one day be his incredible, sensitive trunk.
The group seem to relax, able to cope with newcomers lurking on the edge of their circle. Emboldened, the little guy suddenly scutters out from under his Mum and between his aunties, makes a noise that in years to come will become the terrifying sound of an angry giant trumpeting a warning – but today sounds a comic and inconsequential squawk – then rushes back to the security of the family and the guidance of his elders. Secure in the knowledge of the caring adult community around him, the little fellow had made one of his first forays into the world of being the herd male (a mantle he would not assume for maybe 20 years)– and had clearly established a distance between us.
Do our learning communities offer that same security for people within them to experiment, secure, supported, and with other more experienced members ready to share their knowledge, encourage the learning and above all provide a safe environment for experimentation?
2009, Thula Thula Gme Reserve, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, and on my wife’s and my very last trip to the bush before we returned to England after 17 wonderful years in Africa, we sit on another Land Rover watching a small family of elephants that have been brought back from the threat of culling by Lawrence Anthony, a remarkable man known as the Elephant Whisperer (The Elephant Whisperer - Lawrence Anthony ISBN 978-0-330-50668-7). Rogue, violent, unpredictable and dangerous, Lawrence patience over nearly a decade had given Nan the matriarch and the group a confidence and a security to lead a natural and peaceful life. Again we were warned about needing to move quickly if Mabula, the dominant bull, still scarred by his early life where he had seen his parents and siblings shot, decided we were too close or threatened him in some way. The fact that we were there at all was a consequence of the Elephant Whisperer’s patience in learning about his client, winning their confidence, providing a supportive environment and being involved in their lives as the tiny herd learned that there was a life beyond trauma and abuse.
What lessons are there for our L&D practitioners in Lawrence Anthony’s remarkable success? He learned to “read” them as a group and as individuals – spending countless hours with them, observing, listening, interpreting, and eventually being able to respond by his actions to what he came to understand of their language. It was at that point he became able to truly help them to become a new, secure and strong breeding unit. How able are we as learning practitioners, using the new languages and environments of our technology enabled world, to get close to our clients and to interpret to them and give them security in the new networked and collaborative world so that they can take advantage of the opportunities for learning that it offers?
March 2011, Pilanesburg National Park, South Africa, and I stand early on a cold morning with Jane Hart, clutching a cup of hot coffee, looking out over the waterhole at our lodge, captivated by a large herd of elephants coming to have a drink. On the fringe is a young bull, already becoming some kind of threat to the group, so distanced but allowed to remain close for his own security. He jousts with one of his erstwhile playmates, entwining trunks, jabbing with his forming tusks, butting heads, until the matriarch of the herd decides he is getting too familiar and gently but firmly intervenes and pushes him again to the fringes. One day, in years to come he will return to the herd as its dominant bull, responsible for the succession of the herd.
In the middle of the group a youngster is having difficulty climbing over the dam wall that contains the waterhole. Both front feet on the top, he raises one back foot but then cannot get up completely. Mum gently puts a supportive trunk behind him and gives him an encouraging heave – he still does not make it. He calls, she tries again but success eludes the little one. Mum moves a few metres away and the little guy struggles once more, secure in the knowledge that his experimentation is only going to meet with encouragement and that when the herd leaves he will not be left behind. Next time he will receive the same support as he gathers strength and seeks to learn.
Is that a characteristic of our online learning communities that we care enough for the fringe members to give them security while they find their strength to eventually participate fully – perhaps as thought leaders one day? Are we aware enough of those in our communities who are struggling a bit – maybe it’s the technology, maybe it’s that they just don’t get it yet, maybe they are being blocked by something or someone in another circle about which we know nothing?
A fellow guest on that occasion, on her first trip to the bush and after a drive during which we had seen little, asked me when was a good time to come to the bush? As we stood entranced watching the herd and their learning community in action - my response was “now is a good time”. Are we interested and excited enough by our businesses and the people who work in them to watch, listen, learn and then give back through our encouragement, knowledge of the technology and desire for the strength of everyone in the community? The elephant herd depends on it – it is the way of learning!
Social learning is about giving and receiving – building a strength of community at which others will gaze in awe at its power – but will not be afraid to seek to participate themselves
(Thanks to Jane Hart – who later that day said to me “e” is for ellie-learning!)