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Robert Andrew
 
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The self-renewing properties of flocks of birds could vitalise SA

17 January 2014, 07:38

One of the most beautiful sights of nature is a flock of birds in flight. To the observer on the ground, the flock seems to be in perfect harmony with itself. It twists and turns gracefully before soaring upwards and out of sight. One is left to wonder at what majestic management and leadership skills are embedded in the flock to make its flight seem so effortless and efficient.

 Contained within the flock, individual birds have no overview of themselves; they have no idea of their collective shape, size or direction. Their only contact with the group is through their closest neighbours and yet all the birds seem to be connected to each other, such is their uniformity of movement.

 It is believed that the main purpose of the flock is for protection against predators. It is exceedingly difficult to pick individuals out of the swirling mass.

Researchers, using high-speed film, have shown that when the flock encounters predators, the necessary turning motion is achieved in the form of an extraordinarily fast wave that flows through the flock, passing from bird to bird. The speed of this wave (estimated at one-seventieth of a second) is far faster than any individual bird's reaction time. The flock is indeed more than the sum of the birds.

 When these researchers combine their studies of innovation in birds (using myna birds) with bird flocking behaviour,  they counter cases of innovative behaviour (‘the fast learners’) as well as innovative behaviour performed by individual birds who individually are not innovative, but in the flock, copy the behaviour of the innovative birds (‘the slow, flexible learners’)[1].

 Surprisingly, computer simulation of the behaviour of flocks is not complicated. Three basic computer algorithmic factors are required: don't crash into another bird, keep up with the birds next to you and don't stray too far away. These can be summarised as 'separation', 'alignment' and 'cohesion'. If any predators are around, two more instructions are required: steer away from the predators' heading ('evasion') and steer to move away from the position of the predator ('avoidance'). These five simple rules appear to be all that is needed to manage and lead the flock very successfully.

 Although it may sometimes appear so, a flock of birds is not just 'a big bird', using the combined talents of its individuals to give it extra power and strength.  Nor is it a 'machine', although it seems to have some internal laws that operate mechanistically. To use current scientific jargon, a flock of birds is a complex adaptive system.

 Complex adaptive systems take on a 'life of their own' and have the traits of complexity, which include multiplicity and diversity; spontaneity, adaptiveness, accommodation, transcendence and the capacity for total metamorphosis. These artificial life forms are not bounded in any way: they can be as big or as small as they need to be. Have you noticed that flocks do not become full or overloaded as new birds join the flock?

 Many organisational behaviour scientists like Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and The New Science) are beginning to view modern corporations as complex adaptive systems. They see the growth in electronic networks, the development of interrelationships and the increasing commitment to mutual responsibilities as evidence for this.  To them, the 'self-renewing' properties of natural systems, like flocks of birds, are the secrets that will contribute to the vitality and growth of business in the future. Although a business begins its life as a legal construct, it lives its life as a dynamic ensemble of people, places and things. A flock of birds in flight can reveal the beauty and majesty of the different shapes that this very real ensemble can take.

The business-related complex adaptive system provides an analogy for the structure, economy and governance of a country like South Africa, albeit that many might criticise it for being too simplistic in nature and lacking in attention being paid to the myriad of other factors, like cultural differences, languages, political orientation and power bases. It is seemingly true that one does not see different species of birds flocking together as the well-known proverb predicts. But, different bird species and many insects, like bees, display flocking.

I don’t think the idea of a country, like South Africa, where all the citizens move towards flocking behaviour and, in so doing, the country approaches becoming a complex adaptive system should be viewed as being too farfetched. In a flock, each individual retains its own personality and individuality. Each individual has its own strengths and contributes to the success of the population as a whole. As shown previously, the behaviour required to form and be part of a successful flock is very simple and straightforward: ‘separation’ (of cultures, say), ‘alignment’ (as South Africans) and ‘cohesion’ (Ubuntu).



1 Wired: Zoologic: 15 Jan 2014: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/01/innovative-birds-are-also-less-flexible-learners/?cid=17121744

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