In-flight training

Teaching newcomers complexity is a paradoxical task. Whether to tell a story that illustrates some of the behaviours of a complex system or whether to explain a complex system first and then illustrate observable attributes in nature/business. One of the tales we always tell is that birds flock together using simple rules and that 90% or so of observable flocking behaviours can be explained as such.

In light of this I just love this letter in todays Times. A Nigel Barker wrote in about swallows that were nesting and flying around his barn:

Today I witnessed an extraordinary sight; they had found a small feather, which they were using for insect-catching practice. One bird flew up with the feather and released it. As it floated gently down another bird would catch it and take it up again before also releasing it for yet another to catch and so the high-speed sport continued for five minutes or so.

Anecdotal = yes,

imposing human behaviours and thought processes on other animals = yes

but how magical and mysterious is the thought that these birds were carrying out playful, experiential learning as part of their early development. I can name some very large organisations that don’t have develoment programs as effective as this.

It reminded me of one of my last pieces of work at Natural England, to capture the knowledge of an experienced colleague coming up to retirement. While out in one of the ancient woods in Kent he showed me some amazing ant nests twelve feet across and joined by long corridors and one of his anecdotes was the observation of ants playing a game. One ant would climb onto a small wobbly pebble and the others would try and wobble it off like a boy-scout game of British Bulldog. He insisted that they do play games at the end of the day after the food was collected and the nest repaired.

We should never assume that we know fully how complex systems operate. I am off into the garden to pick up some new tricks and tips for my upcoming ARK KMUK presentation.


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