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Robert Andrew
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Seeking Emergent Behaviour in South Africa

04 December 2013, 08:46

Biologists often refer to natural systems as having the property of 'emergent behaviour'. They define this as behaviour that can never be predicted from knowledge of what each component of the system does in isolation. Rather, it is behaviour that arises out of relationships and the way in which the individuals that make up the system interact with each other.

 A good example of a natural system that exhibits emergent behaviour is the human body. The emergent behaviour arising out of a human body is life itself and it comes about from the many diverse relationships that exist between all the components of the body such as the vital organs, the brain and the multitude of different cells in the body. If injury or disease destroys the relationships, the body dies and life stops. Perhaps, a seemingly simpler example is a flock of birds or a swarm of bees. When birds flock or bees swarm, they are capable of far greater feats than would be the case if they existed as single bees or birds. A flock of birds, in which there may be several hundreds of individual birds, is capable of turning and changing direction far faster than each individual bird is capable of doing. The interaction between individual birds allows each bird to help the other by providing, for example, a greater 'uplift' and a greater forward momentum, and thereby empowering the flock to move more rapidly when it has to. The very effective 'dance' routine that bees use to communicate with one another where food sources exist is another example of emergent behaviour.

But in order to display emergent behaviour, the individuals in the system must follow certain 'rules'. In most cases, these rules seem quite straightforward, but they must be followed. To maintain a flock, the rules are keeping up with your neighbour, don't bump into your neighbour and don't stray too far away from the rest of the flock. The 'food dance' of bees has specific rules, or a code of behaviour, associated with the number of rotations the messenger bee makes and whether the rotation is clockwise or anticlockwise. Each of these indicates the direction in which the food source is located and its distance from the hive. The intensity of the dance indicates the type of food and how much there is of it. In the case of the human body, controlling the temperature, the blood pressure and the chemistry of the blood are some of the rules that the body must adhere to in order for the emergent property of life to prevail.

For some time now, psychologists and behavioural scientists have been debating whether emergent behaviour can be shown by a group of people. This has resulted in a different understanding of teams. One of the characteristics of natural systems is that there is no centralised or bureaucratic control; no one individual component has authority and control over the others. Likewise, in teams, leaders or coaches are replacing conventional managers. Teams are also being viewed as parts of a network, as is the case of knowledge management where networks of ‘communities of learning' are replacing functional and local teams. In these, it is the relationships and interaction of the individuals in a community and those between communities in a network which are giving rise to creating and transferring valuable knowledge, not the data, information and instructions that gets passed down in a one-way stream from management to workers. Unlike rigidly managed work teams, in communities of learning, efficiency is not measured by productivity but rather by the creation of new opportunities brought about by the creation and sharing of knowledge.

But what rules do people in these sorts of groupings have to follow if they want to show emergent behaviour? Like a flock of birds, what rules are needed for a group of people to have far greater capability and talent than each of them alone would have?

 In analysing the world famous Toyota Production System, Steven Spear and Kent Brown (Harvard Business Review, September-October 1999) may have come across some vital clues. They found that at Toyota four simple rules govern the design, operation and improvement of every activity involved in the of all Toyota's products and services. These rules are:

·      The content, sequence, timing and result of every activity must be rigorously specified.

·    The connection between every activity and its associated external supplier must be direct and unambiguous

·      Every product and service must follow a simple and direct path

·       Any improvement must follow the 'scientific method' and be guided by a 'teacher' at the lowest possible level in the organisation

 Instead of being instructed in these rules, Toyota follows a simple approach that allows workers to discover these rules for themselves through a process of teaching and learning. While working, a worker is asked the following questions by a supervisor:

·         How do you do this work?

·         How do you know the work you have done is correct?

·         How do you know whether the work is free of defects?

·         If you have a problem, what do you do?

What about South Africa? Can we as a nation of people develop our own form of emergent behaviour that will stretch our talents to something that we cannot even now envision? If so, what rules must we follow? This is no simple matter, as we do not know what comes first, the rules or the emergent behaviour. Was the human body 'designed' in such a way that its temperature must be 98.4 Fahrenheit or does the body have life because its temperature is at that value? Do bees swarm to communicate or do they communicate to swarm? No one knows. But in any case, what about the following rules for gaining emergent behaviour among the people of South Africa:

·         Be proud to be a citizen

·         Co-operate with colleagues, your community and society in general wherever possible and as fully as possible

·         Treat your employer as your partner

·         Treat your employee as your partner

·         Be a teacher and a learner on every possible occasion

·         Work as hard and as often as you can

 It is clear that emergent behaviour requires us to act more co-operatively than competitively. We can no longer ask from the 'stands' why 'they' don't do something but will have to get onto the playing fields and ask instead who there is that we can co-operate with to get it done. We need to find out what brings out the best of us.

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