Some people think that there are patterns in existence that can be re-used between various disciplines like Physics, Religion and Business. This article explores the similarity of thought between several domains and tries to see how understanding in one area can help understanding in other areas.
Entropy in Physics
In physics, the concept of Entropy can have the following meanings: the degree of chaos, or disorder, in a system; or the amount of useable energy in a system. All physical systems tend towards states of least order, or maximum chaos. That is why eggs break, but can never spontaneously un-break, and why when a glass of water spills, it runs into a flat puddle and does not sit on the floor in a glass-shaped globule.
Closed physical macro-systems (like our very own Universe) will eventually decay into what is known as â€œheat deathâ€?. That is, there is energy left in the system (bearing in mind that the Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy be created or destroyed, but only transformed from one form to another), but not enough to do any useful work. Some cosmologists believe that eventually all the matter (and thus energy) in the Universe will become so thinly spread out in a very random and unstructured way, there will no longer be any potential differences left, and therefore no work can be done.
Work is done when there is an accumulation of energy one place and it moves to another place where there is lower energy. This is the definition of Potential Difference. Such as system is also said to have a low Entropy, meaning that it is quite well organized, with the energy all gathered in one place.
Sometimes, in order to release useful energy stored in a low entropy (highly organized) system, â€œactivation energyâ€? must be supplied. That is why you need to light a match to a piece of wood to get it to burn, and why things (generally) do not spontaneously combust.
Voltage in Physics
Closely linked to the concept of Entropy is Voltage. In electromagnetic Physics, the concept of Voltage is defined as: the â€œpotential differenceâ€? between two electrically charged poles; or the amount of energy required to move an object in an electric field. Two electrically oppositely charged poles are so charged because one of them has too many electrons, and the other has too few. When these two oppositely charged objects are brought near to one another, the electrons in the one object are attracted to the â€œelectron holesâ€? in the other object. Thus there is a force field set up called an electromagnetic field.
Other objects caught in this field experience the force because their own electrons are attracted to the electron holes and repelled by the extra electrons. Now the crucial piece – if they themselves have an imbalance in the number of electrons, the entire object will tend to move towards one of the poles too.
Linking Physical Realities and Social Realities
So we have had a look briefly at two physical principles, Entropy and Voltage. I contend that these ideas are similar to some social rules. This is a leap of faith, I concede, but for me this is intuitive along the following inductive path. Since complex systems, such as atoms (like carbon), molecules (such as DNA strands), composite biological structures (such as cells), and aggregations of cells (such as living things) seem empirically to follow these rules, and since â€œapparently-designedâ€? life forms (such as human beings) seem to be in states of almost inconceivably low entropy, I think that when these beings interact (at a now fairly macro scale) they should follow similar, if not identical, patterns when interacting with one another and their environments. If I have correctly inferred the link, then I can draw conclusions based on the principles that I observe in the physical world and apply them to the social world. If I am wrong, then I appeal merely to the abstract literary construction of analogy, and base my reasoning on observation that the physical and social realities seem to behave similarly.
In the social sciences, we can construct a similar concept to physical Entropy. It is the amount of chaos, or disorder, in an organization; or the amount of usable motivation, talent, knowledge and skill within an organization.
In the social sciences, we can also think of a concept similar to Voltage. This could be a time-based potential difference between the characteristics of people and groups at present and where they may be in the future. We could also speak of a gap between what is currently known and what can be known in future, or an information voltage. Indeed the idea of a â€œgapâ€? is a standard management consulting term for creating work for themselves and selling time to â€œclose the gapâ€?.
Peter M. Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline1, describes this as a Creative Tension that can either be emotionally helpful, or emotionally destructive, depending on the degree of tolerance within an individual or an organization to such a â€œVoltageâ€?.
So now, by our definitions, in nature, the more structured a complex system, the lower its entropy, the more useful energy it contains, and the greater amount of potential energy it can release to do work. We should ask whether this is true of groups of people too, and we will investigate this topic by looking at:
desirable verses undesirable states;
how people learn;
architecting the correct external and internal environments
What we are essentially aiming for is an organization or community that can produce useful work, and as much as possible. Note that the â€œworkâ€? of an organization can be anything for which it exists â€“ profit, or service, or proselytising, or governing, or glorifying. So how do we achieve maximum output of useful work? The principle of limited resources (or the economic concept of scarcity) necessitates maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
Self Organizing Systems
If we start with the premise, as I have argued above, that groups of people are complex systems, we see the following Entropic corollary: these systems will tend to automatically self-organize in a chaotic manner with increasing chaos (Entropy). To see this we only need look as far as a childrenâ€™s playground, or the informal office politics to see two key questions being asked: â€œWhoâ€™s the Boss of the Game?â€?, and â€œWhat are the Rules?â€?. Some organizational (and learning) philosophies encourage the use of â€œAgileâ€? approaches. One of the tenets, for example, of the Agile Manifesto2 (in the software development world, and we will talk about the education arena later) is that the best results are produced by teams that self-organize. That sounds very appealing.
Systems Thinking (Senge and others have written much on this) uses the same ideas, with different labels and called these Reinforcing and Balancing Processes with Delays. These are the basic building blocks of Systems Thinking, and to my mind, equate to Entropy and Voltage in physical systems. However, I would argue that the caveat is that the emergent outcomes are not necessarily the desired outcomes! An anarchic society is self-organized, but not desirable. Other societies would agree and, I think, so would the societants.
The reason is in the Entropy discussion, and the second law of thermo-group-dynamics (to coin a new phrase) â€“ systems naturally get more chaotic than less chaotic, over time. Thus we need a paradigm in which we can reliably predict the outcomes of self-organization, and not only predict the outcomes but engineer them.
We have been assuming up to now that the complex systems are â€œclosedâ€?. This means that we see each system (or group) as a â€œblack boxâ€?, the boundaries of which are impermeable, not allowing information or energy to pass in or out. In such cases, the law of Entropy governs internally and the heat death occurs. But the only closed system that we can really think of is the entire Universe itself. (Whether the Universe really is closed or not, we can only guess â€“ this assumption is what leads to ultimate heat death, as proposed. In my opinion there is too much that we do not know and understand about the nature of reality, both physical and spiritual, that to be dogmatic about this is naÃ¯ve. Personally I believe that it is not closed, and that the Creator continually sustains it by reversing Entropy in measured degrees, but that is a dialog for another time.)
We have seen that in both the case of the activation energy in the Entropy graph, and the fact that an object was deliberately inserted into the electromagnetic force field, that there was been some disturbance of the equilibrium from the outside. Let us call this Influence, Purpose or Desired Outcome. In both cases, new information or energy was introduced into the two systems allowing work to be done. Without the adding of the activation energy, or the prior charging of the small object, everything would have remained the same, and no work would have been done (indeed, the two systems would have gradually decomposed, or discharged like a torch battery that goes flat without the torch ever being used!) This is a crucial link in the reasoning and we shall see later how this relates to Education and e-Learning.
Senge again, has the same analogy (in constructing system diagrams) that alludes to external desired goals, standards, abilities or requirements. It is with these variables that System Thinkers must interact in order to achieve the desired end. Interestingly, the old Cause-And-Effect paradigm, still plays a part, but it must be accepted that Cause and Effect are rarely close together in Time and Space. It is more complex than that â€“ therefore the Systems Thinker must learn to manipulate up- and downstream variables to obtain the leverage necessary.
Creating the Environment
What we have seen from the discussion around Entropy and Voltage thus far, is that there are two basic things that need to be inserted into the organizational environment to create a climate for work.
The first environmental factor is a Gap. This is the realization of the present state, as well as the definition of the desired future state. As in the experiment of the two opposite electric poles, it is very clear to other objects, what the strength and direction of the pull was. Therefore the mandate is to define, articulate and communicate the desired outcome!
The second factor is Activation Energy. Left to itself a group will generally remain the same, or degrade. Social Activation Energy can be in one of two forms, roughly speaking: Incentive, or Fear. The former is generally regarded as being more effective than the latter.
Thus, simply articulating and creating the Gap (read: Purpose) is not enough; external influence must be applied to supply the Activation Energy. In Sengeâ€™s terms, this amounts to changing the external variables.
Directing the Individual
It can be intuitively reasoned, however, that an appropriate environment is not sufficient â€“ in our electric field, for example, we saw that the fact that object itself was charged, enabled the movement. A neutral object will have felt the force, maybe even been affected by it internally, but will not have moved! Therefore, we need more than just a healthy climate.
This is the challenge we face in Education and Learning â€“ understanding and directing the individual in such a way that they can take the best advantage of the environment that has been created for them.
A short synopsis of some learning theories is now needed to bring our discussion to a point.
Here are a few theories that seem to have modern relevance.
Maturationist Learning Theory
“The romantic maturationist stream is based on the idea that the child’s naturally occurring development should be allowed to flower without adult interventions in a permissive environment” 3 The maturationist learning theory is a conceptually appealing theory because it is how we see children learn instinctively, and quite effectively, through observation and play. Indeed, much adult learning is also done in this way through the continual interaction with the observable and abstract reality without boundaries, or within a permissive boundary set. However, given what we have already discussed in terms of natural entropy and organizational entropy, the risk is that such learning will follow paths of least resistance, and tend towards highly chaotic, usually unpredictable outcomes. Therefore unless we can direct the outcome and apply some sort of intent or purpose, we have achieved little in terms of creating the desired result (assuming these outcomes do in fact exist).
C. S. Lewis suggests that “education, without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”4 Lewis here is probably referring to the accumulation of knowledge without some sort of normative, or moral force being overlaid, but the principle holds in the case of any undirected didactic effort. The result is likely to be unpredictable, and possibly even undesirable.
Constructivist Learning Theory
So the idea of intent, or oversight, is thus imperative to learning. The constructivist (or cognitive-developmental approach) seems therefore to be preferable, since it assumes facilitation and promotion. In the constructionist approach, learners are left to make their own inferences, discoveries and conclusions. It is also cumulative in the sense that new information is always added to old information. So far, so good.
Interestingly, the constructivist theory allows for such an event as a â€œreconstruction errorâ€? when learners fill in a gap in understanding between old and new information with a logical, but incorrect, inference. It is here that the educator must perform a crucial role, and one where I think the modern purely auto-didactic view of education will fail the learner. It is precisely at the point of the â€œreconstruction errorâ€? that values (as Lewis puts it), norms, outcomes, morality, intent or purpose must be necessarily imposed.
Connectivist Learning Theory
What constructivism (and other learning theories such as â€œbehaviourismâ€?) fail to address, however, is learning that occurs outside of people (for example, learning that is stored and manipulated by technology), and learning that other people have already done. They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations. So, a fairly recent innovation to the learning theory pool, is the connectivism theory. I find this view highly relevant, although somewhat disconcerting. However, as educators and e-Learning facilitators we will have to understand and deal with this idea â€“ I cannot see it going away!
George Siemens, gives the following insight: â€œIncluding technology and connection-making as learning activities begins to move learning theories into a digital age. We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections. Karen Stephenson states: â€œExperience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other peopleâ€™s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. â€˜I store my knowledge in my friendsâ€™ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people (undated).â€?5 So in the face of an increasingly complex, increasingly demanding-of-change and increasingly intolerant-of-delays world, the way we think about learning and, by implication, e-Learning, must change.
To quote Siemens again: â€œConnectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.â€? 5
He summarizes the principles of the connectivist as follows5:
Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
So the idea is that information moves between the micro and the macro level with great speed, and with great fluidity. The key issue is now no longer, â€œhow much do you know?â€?, but rather the question becomes â€œdo you know what you know, and do you know where to go to find what you donâ€™t know?â€? This seems fantastic â€“ a real silver bullet to learning in the digital era. However â€“ and this is massively dangerous â€“ the point that Lewis makes, still remains. Connectivism concludes that â€œthe pipe is more important than the content within the pipeâ€?.
Conclusions for Change
Tying this together with our thoughts on Entropy and Voltage, we have discovered a powder-keg of possibility.
Long ago I realized that I was never going to be able to be stronger than peer-pressure when my children become teenagers. I am also going to be unable to consciously control the effects (on myself) of information that I read and people that I meet. But what I can leverage if the amplification effect of a concert of choices that I make in who my children associate with, and what things I allow into the sphere of influence over me. But the issue is deeper than this. Since I am powerless to fully control my children in the long term, and intrinsically weak regarding my curiosity and fascination with information that could be to my detriment, I need a better plan. We are back to the point of â€œcreating the environmentâ€? and â€œdirecting the individualâ€?. Unless we can create a desire in our children to want to be with the right kind of people, and a desire within ourselves to want to gather good thoughts, we are doomed.
The Christian Scriptures make the following point: â€œit is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purposeâ€?.6 If the Creator of the Universe sees fit to direct human beings, not at a behaviour level (action), but at a volitional level (will), I assert that it is reasonable, as educators, parents, leaders, facilitators and responsible human beings to try to do the same with those over whom we have influence.
Systems Thinkers conceive of this by means of Systems Diagrams, and I find these extremely helpful. The following diagram shows one of the basic Archetypes (or Patterns) in the domain, namely the â€œLimits to Growthâ€? archetype. The trick is to change the â€œlimiting conditionâ€? and not (necessarily) play with the growing or slowing actions.
Figure 1 â€“ Limits to Growth Archetype
Conclusions for e-Learning
So, we need to draw this together. Here I will draw extensively on Peter M. Sengeâ€™s framework, because I think it is succinct without over-simplification.
The goal of e-Learning is not e-Learning. Neither is it personal growth. It is group growth. Therefore we want to create organizations that learn together in order to achieve the stated objective of the organization â€“ usable work. In order to create learning organizations, we will need (apart from a deep understanding of Systems Thinking, Entropy, Voltage and other such patterns which pervade this list): Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning.
This is the spirit of the leaning organization. It involves knowing oneself and knowing where one wants to be. I have applied the following practical two practical areas where we can start. The first is in the qualitative assessment of individuals, and the second is lifelong learning. Various mechanisms exist that enable the understanding of the individual, both in terms of their current state and planning for a future state. The following diagram and from a commercially available Individual Profiling tool, known as Insights 7. The first diagram shows the measure of the profile of an individual at a point in time and the second show the state of the sum of all the individuals within a team or organization. Trained practitioners can assess these and be very helpful in assisting individuals and organizations to align to goals.
Figure 2 â€“ Insights Personal Profile
Having undergone a profiling exercise using this tool, the person and the organization will be able to know: Personal Style, Interacting With Others, Value to the Team, Decision Making, Strengths and Weaknesses, Communication, Blind Spots, Opposite, Type and Suggestions for Development. The last item in the list (Suggestions for Development) can be the starting point for e-Learning or other Blended Learning solutions.
Figure 3 â€“ Insights Group Profile
The interesting thing comes in when all the profiled individuals are viewed together. Here the combined profiles can viewed to see the overall trend within the organization. Leaders can now address imbalances and take any corrective action necessary to align the trend to the overall Strategy.
A profiling tool such as this can be used as a Before and After snap-shot tool, for both individuals and groups. This will allow for the measurement of the results. Since we know that the very nature of the organization and the individual is complex and non-deterministic, trends are the thing to look for. Psychologists also recommend a program of lifelong learning. Traditional, industrialized societies tend to see the following age-differentiated structure:
Figure 4 â€“ Traditional Age Differentiated Structure
Education is followed chronologically by Work, which precedes Leisure and retirement. However, some more progressive (and, ironically, ancient) schools of thought suggest:
An age-integrated structure with respect to learning has some major benefits:
Healthier brain function into old age, and less decline of mental abilities
To understand and cope with technological and cultural change
To understand their own aging process
To better prepare for leisure activities (spill-over hypothesis)
Mental Models are the way we describe reality. They are not reality itself, only the way we talk about it. One of the reasons why great ideas fail is not that they are bad ideas, but they are in conflict with our core views of how the world works. A way to overcome these obstacles is to identify, articulate and be prepared to change or upgrade our mental models as we work with them.
Like jazz musicians and sportsmen performing in concert, so business teams that embrace the ideas of Shared Vision, Dialog, Practise, Suspension of Assumption, Spirit of Inquiry and Acting as Colleagues, will discover the sheer delight of being a part.
Work in Progress . . . .
1 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Disciple, Random House, 1999.
2 The Agile Manifesto (www.agilemanifesto.org)
3 DeVries et al., 2002
4 C. S. Lewis
5 George Siemens, (http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/index.htm)
6 The New International Version of The Bible, Philippians 2:13
7 Insights (www.insights.com)
8 Ricardo Semler, www.semco.com