Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Even the trees do it! Collaboration and learning in a complex communications world

Over the past few posts I have been writing about online communities needing to understand the need for, and to create within them the same kinds of behaviour that enable the face to face networks in which we live our lives to succeed. I have tried to draw parallels between the lovely community where I live, and those precious online meeting places where I experience so much common interest, desire to share and to help.

I have been alluding to the fact that any community to which we belong has some kind of structure and norms that it follows.  Whether the elephants or something else, communication seems to be essential to everything living in order to establish mutual support, safety and above all the learning that allows us to progress. 

Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution at the Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University, has recently written about why the Neanderthals were overtaken by the modern human. He says:

“Whether humans also possessed more highly developed brains and associated mental capacities than the Neanderthals still remains a matter of intense debate, but experts have pointed to their sophisticated cave paintings and use of spears for hunting as evidence of their innovations.

........In any event, it was clearly this range of new technological and behavioural innovations allowed the modern human populations to invade and survive in much larger population numbers than those of the preceding Neanderthals across the whole of the European continent.”

What this says to me is that humans developed and embraced a new form of communication that was previously primitive, unsophisticated, or maybe even missing in other societies (communities) that existed at the time.  Their discovery and exploitation of visual symbols became a new focus, a new means of spreading information and learning, a new way of passing on ideas and recording information.  That is what enabled them to develop and become the dominant species – they learned how to collaborate to mutual benefit.  

Is that so different from the change we are now experiencing with the development of social media?  The point is that it was embraced and developed to become a highly potent tool in the kitbag that enabled the success and prosperity of our ancestors.  

Written language, the printing press, radio, TV and so on provided further step changes in the way we communicate with one another.  Now we are in the digital age of the social media and virtual communities.  Why is it that we are so suspicious of them when the history of our race has been bound up with discovering, exploiting and developing ever more sophisticated ways of communicating and spreading learning?   

There are times when I feel that a change –resistant L&D function has become an evolutionary cul-de-sac, doomed to eventual extinction.  But that is not right! Yes, there is frustration from those (myself included) who see the potential of our new means of communication and collaboration for exploding the impact that learning can have on the organisations and communities in which we are involved. But there is movement – a growing understanding, hotly and passionately debated around how to harness and use the power which many people see in advancing learning through the use of technology.  It is only those who will not see that in the end will be left behind. 

That may seem a bit far-fetched – but look at this… 

The pattern of life is a network pattern. The individual links in the network of life, of course are strands of DNA. But without the network of connections linking DNA and our cells, those individual strands are useless.

The pattern of intelligence also is a network pattern. The network pattern of neurons in our brain provides the pathways for human intelligence function.

Social systems of course operate as networks as well. Human society has always functioned as networks. Not surprisingly, organizations, as social networks also follow the network pattern of life. True, we have imposed a hierarchical network structure on certain relationships that we call the organization chart, but the work depends as much or more on the informal networks

In addition, as living networks, companies and business webs engage in more than material exchanges - they also engage in cognitive exchanges. Sustainable business success depends on exchanges of information, knowledge sharing, and open cognitive pathways that allow good decision making. These exchanges not only have value, but are essential for the success of the enterprise, so they must also be considered as economic exchanges.

Modelling business as value networks brings us one small step closer to the reconciling our business and economic models with the fabric of society and the web of life” (http://bit.ly/nGkb2U)

Then I came across this fascinating post about the way even trees do it!  

“Graduate student Kevin Beiler has uncovered the extent and architecture of this network through the use of new molecular tools that can distinguish the DNA of one fungal individual from another, or of one tree’s roots from another. He has found that all trees in dry interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) forests are interconnected, with the largest, oldest trees serving as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Through careful experimentation, recent graduate Francois Teste determined that survival of these establishing trees was greatly enhanced when they were linked into the network of the old trees.Through the use of stable isotope tracers, he and Amanda Schoonmaker, a recent undergraduate student in Forestry, found that increased survival was associated with belowground transfer of carbon, nitrogen and water from the old trees. This research provides strong evidence that maintaining forest resilience is dependent on conserving mycorrhizal links, and that removal of hub trees could unravel the network and compromise regenerative capacity of the forests.” (Suzanne Simard http://bit.ly/rcLvCg)

Yes, even amongst trees there is a need to preserve established behaviours and linkages! 

In pursuing my love of the African bush and my understanding of it I learned that some trees when “attacked” by browsing antelope, such as the kudu, rapidly excrete distasteful tannins to deter the attacker – and at the same time discharge chemicals into the air that, carried downwind, warn similar trees of the proximity of a hostile species – and guess what? Those trees increase the amount of tannin in their leaves in order to deter the antelope searching for more palatable food! 

Throughout living organisms communication exists as a defence mechanism. As humans we have the ability to develop and exploit new ways of communicating – and to absorb them into the complex range of communities in which we live.  

So there’s the clue! Our early ancestors lived in single communities, or at most in loose and transient associations of small groups. The trees and the ecology of the bush are relatively static and with a very slow rate of change.  We live in a world of increasing change and where the overload of possibilities for communication is exhausting us. 

This is scary!

It comes from Nova Spivack’s post Sharepocalypse Now: Why Social Media Overload Means New Opportunities for Startups (http://on.mash.to/nNWVHD)

It is a graphic to show just how complex our communication world has become. 

“It’s a perfect storm: A massive expansion of networks on which to share and track information, but all the while, its users have less and less energy to make choices. The result will be a lot more confusion and noise. 

Writing about a recent conference she attended Jenny Mackness says  

"There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds" (http://bit.ly/pDU7uK) 

Where is all this leading?  In our online communities we need to be very clear about purpose, channels of communication and the behaviours that will take with us all who we seek to incorporate, include and invite in our learning and exploration. 

In my last post I drew lessons from the elephant herd that is focussed specifically on ensuring that the little ones learn and are protected as they do so. 

Surely that’s our role in leading L&D forward?  In helping people to learn we have an obligation to help them to experience what the world has to offer as mechanisms. We have to assist them in exploiting the full potential of those mechanisms so that all of us learn together – that way we all prosper! 

In our virtual communities we have to take as much care for the individual as we do when we meet people live.

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