the social sweet spot

Continued from — social learning powers distributed work.

Social learning is about people in trusted relationships sharing and building collective knowledge. It is part of our common evolutionarily developed ‘social suite’.

In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of A Good Society, Nicholas Christakis argues that this coevolution has equipped us with a “social suite” of traits that arose through genetic evolution and that have been amplified by cultural evolution, which has in turn influenced our genetic evolution toward propensities that support the social suite. These include the “capacity to have and recognize individual identity,” “love for partners and offspring,” friendship, social networks, cooperation, “preference for one’s own group (‘in-group bias’),” “mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism),” and “social learning and teaching.” —Howard Rheingold

These seven traits identified by Christakis can be arranged in how valuable they are to overall society.  Self-identity has high individual value while social learning is how we developed our second evolutionary strand — shared culture and knowledge.

“Once humans evolved to be capable of teaching and learning, they developed a parallel evolutionary strand, cultural evolution, side by side with genetic. These two strands intersect repeatedly in many places and times. Each leaves its mark on the other.” —Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society


our social suite and societal valueIn some ways over the past couple of centuries we have collectively forgotten the power of social learning. Most of our education systems are based on individual grades. Many of our workplaces have individual performance reviews. Apprentice programs are only available in a select few occupations.

The shift to distributed work has made many of the flaws in our modern work and education settings much more visible. Zoom showed us how useless many meetings really are. It also showed that many teachers were just talking heads. Working, and learning, from anywhere has shown us that there are better ways to learn than through lectures and that there are better ways to share knowledge than through meetings.

As distributed work becomes the norm, other shifts in how we work and learn will be required. Competition is now global and a lot of work is viewed as a commodity, pushing down wages for any type of repetitive work. Knowledge workers will have to find professional communities to stay current and these may not be in their organization. They will need to connect through digital networks.

With distributed work, serendipitous workplace encounters may decrease unless people find ways to also connect outside their work bubbles. Local co-working spaces may flourish as workers look for human connections. Workers will have to use digital means to learn and gain understanding. Frameworks like personal knowledge mastery will become essential.

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.

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.

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” —Albert Bandura

One Response to “the social sweet spot”

  1. Shaun Browne


    You’ve raised some interesting, and salient points in your discussion of learning in the workplace. I have long held the view that employees want, and need to be seen as competent contributors, first to themselves, to their co-workers, to their organization, and by extension, their customers. If they feel they are making a meaningful contribution to each of these groups, they are adding value to the larger whole.

    Shaun Browne


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