Network Development: Social Learning as Social Change

July 22, 2015 1 Comment

“We are actually waiting for civilization both to learn and reorganize itself with more intricacy, more collaborative coherence and greater social intelligence.”

– Sally J. Goerner, The New Science of Sustainability

social learningTwo weeks ago I wrapped up Harold Jarche’s on-line course on social learning and am committing to practicing some of what I learned through blogging as “learning out loud.” This is not an entirely unusual practice for me, but Harold has helped me to better appreciate the value of turning off the critic and putting “rough draft thinking” out there, as a way of crystalizing and mastering my own knowledge but also (possibly) connecting it to others who may be on the same wavelength/ have similar lines of inquiry and (perhaps) contributing to social change. Preposterous? Maybe.

But consider how our understanding of how the world works is shifting through our ability to see connections, appreciate the social creation of knowledge and grasp the emergent nature of change. Seeing reality through a living systems lens helps us to understand ideas as seeds, expression as sowing, interaction as fertilizer and social networks as the metabolic infrastructure to bring new things fully to fruition.

For the course, Harold recommended the article “Why Even the Worst Bloggers are Making Us Smarter,” and I strongly recommend it to others. One of the points that author Clive Thompson makes:

“The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think.”

This then is accelerating the creation of new ideas and the advancement of knowledge, in a growing number of spheres globally.

Image by Julian Stodd

One of Harold’s refrains is that in this age of increasing complexity and disruption “the work is learning and learning is the work.” In both organizational and trans-organizational contexts, it is important to more intentionally practice social learning to stay afloat, abreast and ahead. My particular interest here is to explore how social learning relates to the work of social change, and specifically work for greater social equity and sustainability.

“The web metaphor does not fully capture the essence of today’s change. The real story here is learning.”

– Sally J. Goerner

In her exploration of “the new science of sustainability,” Sally J. Goerner notes the primacy of learning in maintaining cultural “fit-ness” amidst dynamic conditions. As systems evolve in their complexity, one of the keys to resilience is to keep energy (communication, resources) moving through all of its “parts.” Failure to do so can lead to atrophy in some parts and risks the health of the whole. Indications are that mechanical-industrial era ways of thinking and operating have rendered “mainstream” society unfit for the planet. Furthermore, the rise of oligarchy (elite hoarding of power) is benefitting the very (and largely white) few at the long-term expense of the whole.

Part of the answer to this situation is to create more intricate, decentralized, distributed, life and earth-honoring processes and structures that can help to feed the whole, with one of the core nutrients being real time social learning.  As conditions change unpredictably, it is important to be able to circulate information from a variety of sources more rapidly, and create “processing venues” for people to make collective sense of what they are taking in. What Goerner and others suggest be done to “organize society” to be more fit for long-term survival includes many of the goals for social change of those with whom IISC partners  – preserving diversity, creating equitable access, supporting healthy connections and self-expression.


Key to this kind of organizing work is some of what Harold Jarche mentions as being critical to the practice of social learning – transparency, openness/acceptance, sensitivity to other perspectives and the world around us. And all of this can contribute to a fundamental sense of community, common fate, and belonging necessary to make deep social change.

So the next time you do some thinking or work, consider doing it out loud, via a blog (internal or external) or social media. Sow – put your ideas and narration out there for the seeing and the rifting. Water and fertilize others. It’s not simply self-indulgent. It can help things stick, and it may even contribute to evolution.

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learn-ed find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer


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