[ Another in the series of blogs intended to support those participating in our 10 week Leading Your School’s Digital Evolution program.
The next of the 10 week program begins on April 26, and is open to any who are interested.]
Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
It is vital in addressing the digital evolution of your school you view the school as an ever evolving, complex adaptive system, exhibiting in its evolution the traits found in all other evolving organisations, it becoming an increasingly higher order, more sophisticated, integrated and productive ecosystem.
While you don’t as a school leader have to be expert in complexity science and the evolution of systems it is important to appreciate digital schools like all other digitally based organisations will continually evolve and transform their nature in a remarkably common manner. Moreover they will do so at an accelerating pace, often in a seemingly messy and chaotic fashion, and will in their evolution demonstrate the attributes found in other complex adaptive systems.
Ready yourself to lead a school where constant, often uncertain change will be the norm.
You need to cease, if you haven’t already done so, seeing your school as a distinct one-off entity, and believing schools are immutable, constant in form and will forever stay the same as we have known them for the past century plus.
While each school is unique each will in its evolution display the attributes of like complex adaptive systems.
The reality is that schools globally, like all other organisations, are evolving at pace – albeit at very different rates – displaying in their evolutionary journey a suit of remarkably common attributes, the major features of which have long been identified in the research.
In 2000, 16 years ago, Pascale and his colleagues astutely observed:
‘The science of complexity has yielded four bedrock principles relevant to the new strategic work:
Complex adaptive systems are at risk when in equilibrium. Equilibrium is a precursor to death.4
Complex adaptive systems exhibit the capacity of self-organization and emergent complexity.5 Self-organization arises from intelligence in the remote clusters (or “nodes”) within a network. Emergent complexity is generated by the propensity of simple structures to generate novel patterns, infinite variety, and often, a sum that is greater than the parts. (Again, the escalating complexity of life on earth is an example.)
Complex adaptive systems tend to move toward the edge of chaos when provoked by a complex task.6 Bounded instability is more conducive to evolution than either stable equilibrium or explosive instability. (For example, fire has been found to be a critical factor in regenerating healthy forests and prairies.) One important corollary to this principle is that a complex adaptive system, once having reached a temporary “peak” in its fitness landscape (e.g., a company during a golden era), must then “go down to go up” (i.e., moving from one peak to a still higher peak requires it to traverse the valleys of the fitness landscape). In cybernetic terms, the organism must be pulled by competitive pressures far enough out of its usual arrangements before it can create substantially different forms and arrive at a more evolved basin of attraction.
One cannot direct a living system, only disturb it.7 Complex adaptive systems are characterized by weak cause-and-effect linkages. Phase transitions occur in the realm where one relatively small and isolated variation can produce huge effects. Alternatively, large changes may have little effect. (This phenomenon is common in the information industry. Massive efforts to promote a superior operating system may come to naught, whereas a series of serendipitous events may establish an inferior operating system —such as MS-DOS — as the industry standard.) (Pascale, Millemann and Gioja, 2000, p6).’
All four of these principles have been evidenced in all the authors’ research on the digital evolution of schooling over the last decade, but it is a message that doesn’t appear to have been grasped by most governments, educational bureaucrats or indeed school leaders.
In looking to lead the digital evolution of your school do draw upon to the lessons of complex adaptive systems and appreciate the guidance they can provide your journey.
- Pascale, R.T, Millemann, M, Gioja, L (2000) Surfing at the Edge of Chaos NY Three Rivers Press