Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 2)

 

“Our destination is a future whose form we may not find comforting, but which has just as much beauty and potential as the straight lines and right angles of the past century of reductionism: this future will take the form of organic networks, resilience engineering, controlled flooding – a world without stop signs.”  -via McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, Fussell Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

We don’t just live in the time of the learner, we live in a time where the very idea of learning has expanded.  And our very ability to tune into that expansion remains at the heart of growing into the future in a much more dynamic and relevant manner.  For, it is no longer enough to be a learning organization, you must also be a learning individual.  It cannot be one without the other, they have to work in tandem, each pushing the other past the boundaries of the present, in a constant dialogue with the emerging future and the unknown that it provokes, and how we influence that emergence and learn from it.

Very often, our individual and organizational ability to come to terms with the growing anxiety, ambiguity and uncertainty of this emerging future, as well as the intensified turbulence and pace of change that is driving it forward, is quelled and muffled by our individual and organizational awareness (to the signals of changes to come), access (to relevant resources and ongoing flows of new ideas) and connections (to a diversity of ideas, thinking and people who can continually challenge our thinking, ideas and mental models).

One of the ways to tap into greater this awareness, access and connections comes through the networks that we create and engage within, both internally and external of our organizations.  The more expansive our networks, the greater the learning and ideas that we open ourselves up, too.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”

In many ways, our networks require us to hold the tension of two ideas at once, to being both open (idea flows) without being overwhelmed (action paralysis).

Not only does network learning allow opportunities for great awareness beyond our current conditions; it provides a platform for enhanced diversity of idea flow, both individually and organizationally.  Networks provide an arena to play with and gain feedback on new ideas and thinking; which not only leads to new learning that can cascade across individuals and the organization, but provides a more dynamic environment for engaging in greater exploration and experimentation towards the growing need for more creative and innovative thinking, ideas and action that move individuals and organizations past static and status quo thinking, processes and structures that diminish learning and growth.

However, it is not enough to engage in network learning, how individuals participate in that setting is important to how effective that engagement process becomes for enhancing learning.  As Pentland shares in Social Physics, in regards to “star producers” utilizing and gaining from network learning, “First, they maintained stronger engagement with the people in their networks, so that these people responded more quickly and helpfully.  As a result, the stars rarely spent time spinning their wheels or going down blind alleys.  Second, star performers’ networks were also more diverse.  Average performers saw the world only from the viewpoint of their mob, and keep pushing the same points.  Stars, on the other hand, had people in their networks with a more diverse set of work roles, so they could adopt the perspectives of customers, competitors, and managers.  Because they could see the situation from a variety of viewpoints, they could develop better solutions to problems.”

Networks in and of themselves, are not fully sufficient for the collaborative and learning processes and structures necessary to transform our organizations and systems.  However, they do provide a platform and impetus for creating the awareness, access and connections that create momentum towards improving and enhancing the dynamics necessary to push individual and organizational transformation.

As Fullan and Rincon-Gallardo share in Essential Features of Effective Networks in Education, “As we enter a potentially transformative period of change for education, where innovation combined with focus and links to impact will be essential, we predict that effective networks will become increasingly critical to system success.”  Or as Bryk, Gomez, Grunow and LeMahieu add in Learning to Improve, “Large networks are powerful engines for innovation.”

As we begin to delve into networks, seeing and tapping their potential for greater awareness, access and connection for our individuals and organizations, internally and externally, we must also understand their power for learning, both in formal and informal forms.  Understanding the differences and features that accompanies each of these networks, allows individuals, leaders and organizations to determine how the power of learning and collaboration will be different, from formal to informal networks, and how we approach each of these networks will require different perspectives and positions, if we are to engage networks as a powerful force for learning, innovation and transformation.

As we consider the necessity of awareness, access and connection, realizing the power of networks can be an impetus towards the learning and idea flow that pushes individual and organizational transformation.

“By harvesting from the parts of our social networks that touch other streams, that is, by crossing what sociologist Ron Burt called the “structural holes” within the fabric of society, we can create innovation.  When we choose to dip into a different stream, we bring up new habits and beliefs; in some cases, they will help us make better decisions, and our community will thrive.  I believe that we can think of each stream of ideas as a swarm or collective intelligence, flowing through time, with all the humans in it learning from each other’s experiences in order to jointly discover patterns of preferences and habits of action that best suit the surrounding physical and social environment.”  -via Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science

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