Networks as Ecologies of Learning and Innovation

Posted by Steve Waddell in Learning on July 20, 2010

“Ecologies of innovation” and “learning ecology” are two particularly important, fast-evolving concepts for successful multi-stakeholder change networks. However, even the traditional role of "learning" is still poorly understood by most people in such networks. When organizing a meeting in 2007 on the topic of “learning networks”, we had trouble identifying people responsible for learning. And those who attended said their networks spend minimal resources on learning. They typically spend enormous percentages of their staff time and money on face-to-face meetings, and knowledge-exchanges in many forms are daily practice…but these are not thought of as “learning events”. Hence, a major activity of networks is still in rudimentary development.

The concept of “ecology” itself is important for networks. It refers to the diversity of participants and their relationships. Creating a healthy ecology in terms of generation of learning and innovation is critical for multi-stakeholder change networks like Global Action Networks (GANs).

Learning Ecologies

Colleague Bill Snyder, working with Etienne Wenger, developed a "learning ecology" model in the context of their work on communities of practice (published in Snyder & Briggs, 2003, see page 14 of Communities of Practice: A New Tool for Government Managers ). Think of all the possible types of activities when learning happens. These are not necessarily framed as “learning activities” – sometimes learning is not even the primary goal. However, they can be structured to support learning as an explicitly valued activity. These are virtual and face-to-face interactions that can be one-on-one, sub-group, or community-wide. The Figure describes this as an interacting set of activities that are framed as learning spaces.

These activities must develop both explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be written down and easily shared like facts and procedures. Formal education processes, databases and books are great for sharing explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that one has but cannot explain, and includes intuitions, values, artistry, and expertise. It is best developed through such activities as dialogue, mentoring, joint problem-solving and informal exchanges.

Seven Features of Ecologies of Innovation

How to develop a robust learning ecology is furthered with the concept of “ecology of innovation” that is central to a new book, Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership, co-authored by colleague Benyamin Lichtenstein along with Jeffrey Goldstein and James Hazy. They point to seven features of a healthy ecology of innovation that can be described in reference to GANs:

  1. Ecologies are Systems of Difference: The multi-stakeholder and global qualities of GANs should be encouraged to produce innovation…although ensuring productive interactions requires skill.
  2. Diversity is the Source of Adaptability: The differences allow for a wide range of combination of ideas and actions, in response to specific problems, needs and circumstances.
  3. An Ecology is a Nexus of Interacting Ecosystems: This brings out the importance of the range of interactions in a learning system…thinking of networks as “nodes” of interaction in contrast the usual thinking of network “nodes” as physical places or organizational units.
  4. Ecosystems Require Interaction Resonance: “Interaction resonance” is what makes exchanges robust…it “signifies a richness of information flow”.“Continuous effort is required to strengthen, widen and deepen the capacity of the relationships, so as to transport resources and knowledge more quickly and effectively.” (p. 31)
  5. Ecosystems Coevolve by Cooperative Strategies: Rather than conflict and competition that are commonly seen as conditions to drive innovation, coevolution is dominant in networks. It is a process of shared benefit in which all gain through interdependence and interaction.
  6. Ecosystems thrive in a Disequilibrium World: Innovation is associated with changing conditions and capacities…technological, political, social, cultural and environmental.
  7. Ecosystems Exist at Multiple Levels: GANs are local-to-global networks; innovation can occur at any level and be carried throughout the network.

These ecology framings can guide network development, by answering questions such as:

  • Are we appropriately making use of the possible range of learning interactions?
  • Do we have sufficient difference?
  • Are we good at creating productive interactions (interaction resonance)?
  • What is the role of coevolution, as opposed to conflict and competition, in realizing our vision?

Answering these questions and developing “interaction resonance” should be a major goal of a network learning steward. Networks really need to develop their learning and innovation competency, and that requires applying staff and resources to develop and implement a strategy to develop robust ecologies of learning and innovation.

The Complexity book deals with private enterprise; it would find a much richer focus with GANs. Its description of the “ecology of innovation” concept reinforces the reason that I find GANs potentially so powerful for addressing critical global challenges. However, the concept raises in my mind the on-going question of whether we can innovate quickly enough to address the increasing scale and pace of disequilibrium (particularly environmentally)…or whether we’ll spin into disastrous chaos and global collapse.

1. Adapted from: Snyder, W. M. and X. de Souza Briggs (2003). Communities of Practice: A New Tool for Government Managers. Arlington, VA, USA, IBM Center for the Business of Government. p. 14

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