The Challenge Network

   go back   

Enablers of adaptation

Enablers of adaptation

Readers who work from top to bottom in a list will already have visited the sections which ask what it is that permits adaptation. A series of factors were listed, such as the presence of high levels of human capability, functioning institutions and informal systems of social organisation, effective asset allocation machinery and an environment that affords security and stability.

We noted that the absence of any one of these factors could inhibit adaptation. We also found that there was no single right way in which to go about to delivering any of these assets. Equally, there was no single best mixture for which to strive. Adaptability results from the working together of many resilient underlying systems, and these seem to function adequately across a wide range of combinations. Outside of this range, however, adaptation and growth are hampered. There are many ways of being right, but these together comprise a tiny subset of the many ways of being badly positioned.

The enablers of change are, of course, themselves a large component of the sources of change, where change can be read in three ways. Existing activities can be driven faster and more intensely. Things which had hitherto been separate become connected together. New things arise, either as a result of these new connections and greater volume, or through random events or conscious design. However, if there are more people and firms in existance than hitherto, and if each is better informed and better connected together, if each has more options, if they are embedded in systems which predispose them to try new things, then many more new things will emerge. The pace at which this occurs in the next twenty years is likely to be unprecedented. Each new thing sets a challenge to the balance that previously been established, and demands adaptation from those who would retain their poise.

Much that is novel arises through trial and error, rather as biological evolutionary processes sieve random variation, conserving the traits which convey success. Such processes operate strongly at the 'micro' level, where painless experiments generate new ways of talking about things, create fashion and crazes, set up new social networks and engender new tacit institutions.

Activities which operate in a more monolithic manner often need to take a more structured approach to change, not least as a mistake may have broad consequences. There is, therefore, an additional element to the enablers of adaptation, and that is best called 'understanding'. Miniscule pond organisms manage their relations with physical obstacles in their environment by retreating from collision and setting out randomly on a new course. Fish, by contrast, seem to have a model of the layout of the pond which they use to avoid obstacles, find prey and avoid predators. They act in anticipation, and have a world view which is built up from streams of information which they receive from their environment. Adaptation requires us either to know something of the system to which we are adapting, or else to jiggle about randomly until we, or someone we can copy, finds a way around the obstacle. Both approaches have a role, but it is probably more individually satisfactory to be a fish that a sacrificial planktonic pawn.

The enablers of adaptation are, therefore, a set of engines (such as capable people, working and predictable institutions...) and a parallel set of systems which try to find satisfactory balances. There is a broad consensus, at least in the industrial world, as to the nature of these engines. The proper character of the systems which strike balances is, however, far more contentious.

There is, for example, a broad class of opinion regards clear views with suspicion and, indeed, often draws no distinction between clarity and ideology. Experience has shown the people who hold this view that strong, monolithic views are often proven to be wrong, and to so mislead in a sweeping way. Enthusiasm and advocacy may shut down debate, repress dissent and limit experiment. Far better, it is argued, to emphasise the pragmatic approach, based on many small experiments, as the way forward.

The opposing view seeks a rational, conceptual basis for action. It asserts that policy and strategy should be based on evidence and measurement, for there is nothing which we cannot understand if we make enough effort to do so. Trial and error will take us to local optima, not to the globally best solution, which we should always seek. Timid obfustication will prevent us from transcending our current limitations.

Both views have their advocates, and both groups can point to dreadful mistakes that have been made by the other school. Fashion has swung from one pole ot the other in the course of the twentieth century, with a perhaps premature victory being claimed by the pragmatists. The clarifiers are quite right in asserting that accretional responses will create increasingly complex and ill-fitted organisations, whilst clean redesign will - if its premises are corect, of course! - cut through the muddle to effective simplicity.

The tools of the knowledge economy have so much to contribute to the resolution of this conflict. The active identification of areas of uncertainty helps us to know what we need to learn. Iteration around these issues allow us learn continuously. This provides a ready conduit through which to learn from pragmatic experiments, from expert practitioners, from those with different perspectives, from those who suffer unexpected impacts. There is no chance of an ideology arising which crushes alternative views, for there is no end point: the practitioners of knowledge management techniques proceed on the basis that all of their ideas must be permanently partly baked, but that this is better than an idea with no baking at all!

Adaptive structures have the equivalent of a nervous system, a pattern of information transduction which interprets the world and seeks out its preferred outcome. Adaptive systems can only work when they are supported by the enablers of change with which we began. Taken together, however, the huge increase in potential which the world will see over the next generation may well astound us by what it achieves. Unless, that it, the sources of friction preponderate, in which case the outcome may be altogether more drab.

 to the top