complexity and social learning

As we transition from a market to a network economy, complexity will increase due to our hyper-connectedness. Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is life in perpetual Beta. Get used to it. Preparing for this will require time, social learning, and new management structures.

Soft skills, like collaboration and cooperation, are now more important than traditional hard skills. While cooperation is not the same as collaboration, they are complementary. Collaboration requires a common goal, while cooperation is sharing without any specific objectives. Teams, groups and companies traditionally collaborate. Online social networks and communities of practice cooperate.

Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being cooperative means being open to others outside your group. It also requires the casting-off of business metaphors based on military models (target markets, chain of command, strategic plans, line & staff).

Cooperation, sharing with no direct benefit, is needed at work so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by increased complexity. Collaborating on specific tasks is not enough. We have to be prepared for perpetual Beta. What worked yesterday may not work today. No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results.

Work in networks requires different skills than in directed hierarchies. Cooperation is a foundational behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us will be working. Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate so that people in the network cannot be told what to do, only influenced. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

Knowledge is evolving faster than it can be codified in formal systems and it is depreciating in value over time. What does that mean for all of our formal training and education systems?

One of the ways to deal with this knowledge explosion is to use what we have, our humanity. We have developed as social animals and our brains are wired to deal with social relationships. By combining technology with our brainpower, we can figure things out. We are naturally creative and curious. We just have to build systems that nurture our inherent abilities. Schools do not do that. Most workplaces do not. Our economy does not. Most of our governance systems do not. The answers to our problems are within us, collectively. We have more creativity (for good and bad) than any other creature. We need to harness it.

This is what social learning is all about. Not just solving problems, but creating new ways of working. There are amazing technological inventions and discoveries every day, yet we and our media focus too often on our problems. On the edges of society people are experimenting with new ways of working and living together. What is most amazing is that now we can learn about these things with a simple search or click. Three billion people connected to each other is absolutely amazing, yet many of us cannot see the forest for the trees.

The Internet is a cornucopia of people sharing what they know. All one needs is the interest and a few skills to filter this. Don’t have the skills? Ask somebody. There are many people willing to help.

It seems so obvious to me, but most organizations are trying to deal with this complexity in simplistic ways. Humans have the ability to deal with some very complex things, yet too often our cultural and organizational barriers block us from using our innate abilities. The future is connected, messy, loose, and open.


complexity in the workplace

3 Responses to “complexity and social learning”

  1. Simon Phipps

    Hi Harold
    Thank you for your continuing thoughts, they always get my brain working.
    As someone not in a business leadership position I find it difficult to comprehend the way that work has become more complex recently (as opposed to complicated). I would be extremely grateful if you could provide some practical ways that complexity is entering more into everyday business.
    Kind regards


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