Learning from children: strategy, tactics and games in times of rapid change

July 20, 2009

baby_teo2

Are there lessons in how children learn that might help us adults, and the organisations we run, learn from turbulent environments and make better decisions in times of change?

Watching my 9 month old child grow up, I was struck by how inventive and experimental his learning style can be.  Like all children, his life is a constant stream of novelty and change.  He has very little control, has no sense of why or how things work, yet learns quicker and more effectively than most adults and at a rate which makes organisations look positively glacial.  He also seems to enjoy it much more than most adults I know as well.

A colleague recommended reading the classic book “How Children Learn”, by John Holt.  That book is reviewed here, here and here.  I have transcribed relevant excerpts below, and interpret them in the context of organisational learning and strategic change management.

When children attack a new problem, they begin to play, almost at random.  This generates a tremendous amount of sensory data. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data.  The trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment.  He is asking nature a question, he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so he can hear the answer.  But a child doesn’t work that way.  He is used to getting answers out of the noise.  He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of his experiences.  His way of attaching a problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, [in as many] ways as possible.  then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns.  He begins to ask questions – that is, to make deliberate experiments.  But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

This is a marvellous phrase, “he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.”  How many of us have felt this way, when honestly considering the complexities we face in our daily lives?

The young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage in situations… where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask.  He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise.  Above all, he is much less likely than an adult to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them.

Reading Holt contains excellent lessons for decision-makers faced with complex, changing landscapes.  They must first understand what kinds of problems they are facing and what kinds of questions must be asked.

This can only be done through experimentation.  But not the kind of experimentation taught to us in the science lab.  The kind of experimentation that doesn’t need to be taught, that is, through play.

But not just any kind of play.  Play doesn’t work if it isn’t fun.  Play minus fun equals labour, which doesn’t have the same learning benefits.

The spirit behind [children’s games] should be a spirit of joy, foolishness, exuberance, like the spirit behind all good games, include the game of trying to find out how the work works, which we call education.

Only through play, then – through random, iterative, and fundamentally joyful experimentation – can we begin to understand how and why the world is changing.  And only through play can we generate the notions and motivations necessary to interact successfully with it.

Surprising insights from an author who specialises in, well, children’s games.  Perhaps management strategy need not be as serious and we like to think.

UPDATE – See my similar post on “Rules for Emergent Experimentation“, which reaches similar conclusions and proposes guidelines for play in the context of organisational learning.


An agent-based model of why incompetence spreads through big organisations

July 7, 2009

Italian research scientists use agent-based modelling to demonstrate the “Peter Principle” or organisational incompetence.

It is a truism amongst disgruntled workers in large organisations that their managers are complete idiots.  This is often justified with reference to the “Peter Principle”, named after the Canadian psychologist Laurence Peter who first observed this phenomena in 1969.  The international aid sector is no exception.

Stated simply, the Peter Principle is:

All new members in a hierarchical organisation climb the hierarchy until they reach their level of maximum incompetence.

A new study by researchers at the Universita di Catania has produced computational evidence explaining why this might be the case.  From the MIT Technology Review article on their paper:

[The researchers] say that common sense tells us that a member who is competent at a given level will also be competent at a higher level of the hierarchy. So it may well seem a good idea to promote such an individual to the next level.

The problem is that common sense often fools us. It’s not so hard to see that a new position in an organization requires different skills, so the competent performance of one task may not correlate well with the ability to perform another task well.

Peter pointed out that in large organizations where these practices are used, it is inevitable that individuals will be promoted until they reach their level of maximum incompetence. The unavoidable result is the runaway spread of incompetence throughout an organization.

The research team has used agent-based modelling to simulate this common practice of promotion. They found that, contrary to intended effect, performance-based promotion leads to, “a significant reduction in the efficiency of an organization, as incompetency spreads through it.”

The best way to counter this effect?  Alternately promote competent and incompetent people or simply promote people randomly (or based on non-competence criteria).

A nice review can be found at the MIT Tech Review and the full text can be found here, “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study”


Internet “not so hot” at motivating action

May 18, 2009

nader

Social activist Ralph Nader suggests that the Internet “doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action” in a recent speech.

In a great review of a recent Ralph Nader speech over at, Ars Technica, long time social activist Ralph Nader suggests that, while excellent for gathering information, use of the web as a social activism tool may be limited.

The Internet has become more of an extension of market life than civic culture, he warned, the latter dwarfed by the shopping mall. Nader asked the students to indicate by a show of hands how many had ever been to a city council meeting or a court trial as an observer. Then, he queried, how many had been to Wal-Mart or McDonalds? The audience was understandably reluctant to cooperate with this rhetorical set-up, but everybody got the point.

“In fact, it’s worse now than ever,” he scolded the students. “You spend six times longer listening to music than we did when we were your age. And last I knew there were only 24 hours in the day. And you’re always on the [at this point Nader mimicked a cell phone] ‘Where are you? Two blocks away?’ Massive trivialization of communications.”

Sure, Nader conceded, there’s moveon.org. “They generate a lot of e-mails. But then it goes down fast after that, in terms of anything else.” And then there was the Obama online victory. But “they’re wondering why their 13 million e-mail list isn’t translating into a power force on Congress, to get his agenda through.”

The problem, Nader warned, is that whatever benefits the Internet offers, “it’s a huge consumption of trivial time. That’s the real negative. You can just lose yourself.”

He challenged the young crowd to project themselves years into the future, talking to their grandchildren. “What are you going to say to them?” he rhetorically asked.

“You know. The world is melting down. They’re nine years old. They’re sitting on your lap. They’ve just become aware of things that are wrong in the world: starvation, poverty, whatever. And they ask you, what were you doing when all this was happening: Grandma? Grandpa? That you were too busy updating your profile on Facebook?””

“Are big corporations afraid of the public use of the Internet? Does Congress fear the civic use of the Internet? Does the Pentagon fear the civic use of the Internet? Those are the questions you want to ask,” Ralph Nader told an auditorium of college students in Washington, DC on Monday. “My tentative conclusion,” he continued, “is that the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action.”

Commentary

This is an interesting counter trend to the “Twitter is Salvation” crowd, which I’ve found echoed in many places recently.

For example, at a recent futures workshop for consultancy outsights, Vinay Gupta suggested that the web was useful for organising people around some kinds of problems, some of the time.  It was suggested that problems requiring extensive, drawn-out collaboration between large groups tended not to work on the Internet, where problems requiring short, quick intervention do.  See the recent success of flashmobs or crowd sourced fundraising for some examples of successful mass collaborations empowered by the web.

But are these really collaborations?  What about the really difficult, contentious things?  Research has found that the web actually tends to fragment political dialogue more than unite it.

Does the web actually promote collective social action around difficult, collaboration, negotiation intensive problems?  Or does it just facilitate the quick and easy wins, leading to ever greater political and social fragmentation?


Conference on geospatial science and technology for sustainable development in Africa

May 14, 2009

There is an interesting looking conference on technology, mapping, and sustainable development at Harvard at the end of June.Geospatial

Science & Technology for Sustainable Development in Africa: Partnerships and Applications

Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School, May 28–29, 2009The conference brings together members of public and private donor organizations with those from institutions and industry engaged in the application of geospatial science and technology to assess development needs, formulate responses to those needs, and successfully implement sustainable development programs in Africa.  Its goal is to insure that public and private sector initiatives that rely on geospatial tools, techniques, and applications achieve a high level of integration in the areas of database requirements and standards, methodologies, and strategies for sustainability.  Enhancing private sector linkages with government and nongovernmental initiatives already underway, as well as with ongoing academic and scientific research efforts, will help further capacity building and coordinate public policy applications across regions and themes.

Conference details here.


Us Now: a new film about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet

May 11, 2009
Vodpod videos no longer available.

“In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?”

A new film highlights some of the amazing possibilities and new potentials of mass collaboration and its impact on governance.

From the website:

New technologies and a closely related culture of collaboration present radical new models of social organisation. This project brings together leading practitioners and thinkers in this field and asks them to determine the opportunity for government.

“We are living in a different world now. THe value of the human being, the connected human being is coming through.” – JP Rangaswami

The site has an amazing collection of clips and interviews, which can be found here.  I was struck by how one Alan cox, an open source software pioneer, reflected upon the impact of these approaches on political power.  In the video below, he states that such tools aren’t having that big of an impact on power yet, because the people who benefit from them are so far down the political food chain.  But as with projects such as the One Laptop Per Child programme, such tools offer the benefit of vast amounts of education and information to those traditionally deprived from it, this sowing the seeds, potentially, for future change.  This is a beautifully real assessment of open-source which gets beyond much of the management hype.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Explore the entire site, or skip directly to the page with wonderful video interview clips.


Climate change exchange: Liverpool Uni/ CAFOD

April 21, 2009

Exchange between Liverpool University and CAFOD 6-7 April 2009

Participants: Cyril Caminade, Andy Morse, and Anne Jones, Liverpool University; Clodagh Byrne and Mike Edwards, CAFOD, Emma Visman, HFP

The first morning comprised a brief introductory presentation of HFP, followed by presentation by Liverpool of its areas of climate work – Liverpool University Climate Change Impact and Assessment (LUCCIA). Discussion then focussed on how some of these might be relevant to CAFOD and its partners, and proposed collaborative activities.

Cyril has provided his presentation on his blog, with links to various journals – please read these notes in conjunction with: http://caminade00.blogspot.com/2009/04/cathold-kings-college-uniliv-meeting-06.html

Ongoing activities of LUCCIA

They  have modelled the spread of blue tongue and liver fluke in Europe. Such information can be used as an analogue for more dangerous illnesses, for illnesses for which there are as yet no vaccines.

Seasonal forecasts available now four times a year for 180 day periods. Some seasonal forecasts are run out to 13 months and some for 10 years, the latter two are cutting edge.

African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analyses (AMMA) which combines information from food security, health, land degradation and water resources.

ERA – risk assessment on the impact of climate change on human health and well being, Europe-focussed but trying to push to the edge of Europe and export to an African context.

Learning about how to assess how good models are: Look at how models work retrospectively against current climate and historically observed weather data. While if they accord well with past ‘observations’ , this might indicate that they will work in the future, retrospective fit does not ensure that they will work in the future. Mechanisms which impact on the climate change across the time scale are not necessarily included within the climate models. No models work well over West Africa. Information on future rainfall for Africa is not clear (see also the article from Richard Taylor, UCL on this). The biases in global climate models (GCM) are even more evident in high resolution models. While models are not reliable for definite future climates, they may be used to indicate trends. This raises a need to identify which types of climate information may be useful for the different timeframes of humanitarian and development planning.

Climate scientists should not be allowed to just provide climate information: they need to show the impacts of the climate information rather than just showing meteorological information.

How climate information could be used by CAFOD

There was discussion on the various ways in which climate information can be used within CAFOD, both within policy/advocacy work, and directly by partners. There is a wide variation in the capacity of partners to take on climate information. There is a need to translate climate information for programme work and contextualize climate change within other existing and future hazards. At present most humanitarian organisations use only IPCC key messages.

Climate information identified during the exchange could be used within CAFOD’s country strategy papers. But this will need to convey the level of uncertainty within the climate information provided.

CAFOD has one PhD student undertaking research in the Philippines with another due to start work in Bolivia. They are looking at climate change alongside a range of other environmental issues, including local land use.

There is a need for a centre to which humanitarian organisations can submit climate enquiries, whether this is through the DFID-supported Climate Centre, shortly to be established, or a Humanitarian climate change advisory panel.

There is a need to differentiate the impacts of climate change from other environmental factors, to avoid blaming everything on climate change.

The group reviewed the UNDP country climate profiles produced by Mark New, Oxford, funded by DFID. There is much relevant material here, with extensive use of climate models. This review was useful to ensure that proposed activities do not duplicate already existing climate information.

Mike asked if HFP could provide a presentation about a range of future drivers during the CAFOD-hosted second session of the exchange.

Different options for training were discussed. One possibility was to make available a spoken version of the seminar on climate for 1st year Geography students at Liverpool. The powerpoints are available and this would only require scripting and recording the seminar for each slide.Other options discussed included training of training courses to enable regional trainers to train users in region.

There are a number of useful tools readily available, such as Climate Explorer, cited on Cyril’s blog. These would require various adaptations for specific user groups.

Anne Jones showed us her work on modelling of climate and malaria. This models the spread of the vector, based on past observations of the linkages between rainfall and reported cases of malaria. It focuses on marginal areas of rainfall and use ENSEMBLES forecasts. There is a lag of several months between rainfall and instances of malaria. The model does not plot natural immunity – an area under research within Sanger-supported malaria network exploring genetic immunity.

Such dynamic models allow consideration of interventions, and the most effective timing of potential interventions. Such forecasts have for example been used by MSF to identify the best time to undertake meningitis vaccination programmes in West Africa.

Anne’s malaria modelling exercise included tools for cost-loss assessment enabling decision makers to assess the accuracy of climate forecasting against the costs of potential interventions and set their decision thresholds. The user can set the cost/loss ratio. This tool could be used to assess the costs involved in responding to other future risks, and would then provide policy makers with a decision-making tool in prioritising across risks. There was some discussion on the units for comparison being measured, are we measuring economic loss, social loss – death/sickness. Anne will send slides of this tool. She would be great to invite for a stand alone seminar – but it is work in progress.

There was discussion on the use of climate information, including political and economic manipulation. The case of South African farmers using seasonal information to manipulate market prices was cited.

Proposed research

Developing a model to identify critical thresholds and tipping models. Combining social and climate information on crops, population, water resources and climate to identify definite tipping points and enable climate change to be compared to other hazards. While Bolivia was proposed for the more extended focus, a model could be worked up using West Africa information for the 8 June meeting. If a rice-dependent area, information available from the International Rice Institute. The local community could further contextualize climate change to consider other issues of vulnerability, such HIV.

Mike mentioned that UCL Department of Engineering has significant funding for PhDs and we should approach them with specific areas of identified research work . CAFOD’s 2 PhD students are funded through this work.

Existing climate materials of potential relevance to the humanitarian community:

Climate and health bulletin, of the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD), produced monthly. We need to contact them to ask to be put on the mailing list.

Relevant journals to which the partner exchange can contribute articles (see links from Cyril’s blog):

CLIVAR exchanges – a non-peer reviewed newsletter of CLIVAR. Some issues are themed.

Weather, Climate and Society, of the American Meteorological Society. First edition due in Fall 2009. Emma to contact to enquire if we can submit information for its Policy fora (1,500 words) and notes section (up to 2,500 words).

Notes on the dialogue

The exchange was greatly facilitated by scientific partners already having a good understanding of the environment in which humanitarian and development organisations work, and the humanitarian partner having technical training in climate change and extensive experience in climate change education. Andy Morse has spent considerable time in strengthening the capacities of meteorological colleagues in Africa and is especially keen on promoting the development of climate information for relevant end users. Mike Edwards has studied climate science and been actively promoting education of climate change and information. There have been few of the commonly identified constraints of ‘language’ and terminology in the science/humanitarian dialogue.

Two days is more than an enough for an initial visit. Not only does it demand a lot from the host, taking them away from their ongoing work, but is also saturation point for humanitarian organisations taking on the extensive range of climate information.

It was useful to review existing climate information, such as the Mark New UNDP country climate profiles. There is wealth of existing data. The issue then being how this information is to be used, how to instil capacity to understand the data, and where best to site this.

The second part of this exchange will take place at CAFOD in mid May.


CAFOD / Liverpool visit

April 18, 2009

We had a productive visit last week between CAFOD and the team at the University of Liverpool.  Emma Visman (of HFP) has some good notes of the interactions(which we hope she will post soon).

Cyril Caminade produced a blog entry here.

Will update more later.

Andy

UPDATE FROM HFP  – Professor Andy Morse is an HFP Climate Change Exchange Fellow, more of which can be found here.