Ecology of knowledge, learning, and networks

Ecology and ecosystems are concepts often used to describe complex systems that have little to do with nature. As a biologist, this triggers my interest. I have encountered terms like knowledge ecology, ecology of education, and the ecology of a network all of which are man-made systems. Perhaps it goes along with an increasing environmental consciousness and accompanying familiarity with and sympathy for a concept like ecology. It certainly helps to use ecology to immediately create a mental image of finely tuned systems with many intricate relationships. Aside from being a useful analogy, I think there is more to it.

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in association with the non-living components of their environment. Whereas ecology is the study of the interaction of living organisms with the place they live. It means that if you, for instance, discuss the ecology of a network of people or organisations, you should not only consider how the network is organised, but also how the people in the network react to the opportunities they gain from being members of that network. Patterns of interaction emerge that define the ecosystem and these patterns are not static but evolve.

As in a natural ecosystem, this has an important consequence in that some organisms thrive better than others, because they can make better use of their environment, and other organisms will lose out. Knowledge management, for instance, can benefit hugely from the ever-growing possibilities of social media for rapid exchange of information. However, this creates knowledge ecosystems that will favour those who learn to make optimal use of social media and those who do not will lag behind. Young people are learning fast how to survive in this ecosystem. They have to! (Although young people are not the only ones. Statistics show that 65% of Facebook users are older than 35, and the biggest growth is among the 45-54 year-olds.)

Ecosystems can be influenced. Have we not done so for millennia ever since humans first began to farm and became gardeners? However, just because we can identify patterns, it does not mean that we can predict how the system will behave or how it will react to our interventions. Biologists have learned this the hard way by introducing exotic animals for pest control that, in turn, became pests themselves. This makes the ecology analogy particularly useful for complex adaptive (human) systems where you can only probe, sense and respond to see what changes will emerge.

Still, the distinction between the living organism (the people) and its surroundings does provide two useful avenues for ‘ecological’ analysis of complex systems.

You can:

1)      Study how people behave in an ecosystem. Two examples:

  • The 70-20-10 rule is very useful to understand the ecology of work related learning. People only learn 10% of what need to know for their job through formal training like training course, 20% through informal contacts, and 70% in practice. By realising that you can target your learning interventions at stimulating more informal learning like creating opportunities for exchange and reflection.
  • In the ecology of a network you will find that people take different roles. Some are good connectors (see my last blog), others come with new ideas or help organise the work, while some persons may observe before they contribute their part. Understanding how people assume and fulfil these roles, or ecological niches, in the network helps to find the right people to get things done.

2)      Look at the factors of the system that help or hinder people and focus on changing these. These factors could be considered the non-living components of an ecosystem, which in a social context is referred to as the enabling environment. An example I particularly like:

  • Contrary to intuition, removing features on the road such as curbs, road surface markings, and traffic signs can reduce the number of accidents. It makes drivers apprehensive and therefore more alert. It forces them to pay more attention to the road conditions compared to a situation in which all signs and markings are present. This has been successfully applied in the shared spaces by Hans Modderman, who concluded that “if you treat people like idiots, they will act like idiots”.

Influencing the ecosystem has its limits, however. Ecosystems have a self-regulating capacity that helps them to remain close to a state of equilibrium. Large disturbances will upset the resilience of the ecosystem, which will tend towards a new equilibrium. So, tinkering with ecosystems is tricky. And the larger the system, the more unpredictable the effect of disturbances and interventions will be and the longer it will take to begin to understand the dynamics. Think about the global discussion and research around climate change of the last few decades. There is still disagreement on the causes and we are still guessing about what changes it will bring us.

It is easier to influence a small system like the knowledge ecology of an organisation and you could use the metaphor of gardening as Ewen Le Borgne does in his blog: the knowledge facilitator is the gardener who cultivates certain kinds of knowledge. But Ewen also advises us to use a sensible dose of ‘let it be’. And rightly so, because the more the gardener is pruning and watering, the less the garden becomes a self-regulating ecosystem. To continue with the metaphor: you can help some rare or valuable species that might otherwise disappear (e.g. keep indigenous knowledge alive), or you can help your ecosystem recover from a period of drought (e.g. feed discussion with new information). But you should not try to shape your ecosystem into something it is not inclined to be, like a desert into a green golf course. You will not manage in large systems, and in small systems it is a waste of time and resources.

So my advice to facilitators (regardless of whether they facilitate knowledge management, learning, or networks) is to observe the ecology of your system well:

(1)   by studying how people behave in it, and how you can help them make optimal use of the system (for instance through capacity building),

(2)   by looking at the factors in the system that help or hinder the users.

Then tune your interventions to the ecology of the system as much as possible. Because if you go against the natural state of the ecosystem, you spend a lot of time watering and weeding and you will become a very tired gardener.


More on evolution in my next blog! Let me know if you find interesting examples of how knowledge or learning ecologies evolve.


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