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