Social Propagation is the secret to organizational and team learning

and the most evolved non-human species on the planet is not who you think it is! Arie de Geus is credited by many as the inventor of the concept of "the learning organisation". In his book "The Living Company" Arie describes an interview with Professor Alan Wilson, distinguished zoologist and botanist.


Inter-generational learning is the key

Professor Wilson has a theory that inside each species ticks a genetic clock - no matter which species the clock ticks at the same rate.

Therefore you can work out the most evolved species by calculating who has the most ticks on their clocks.

Top of the advanced evolution league table are humans as expected. However the most evolved non-human species according to Wilson is birds - songbirds to be precise!

The theory suggests that species which are rapid evolvers have been able to supplement normal evolution, which proceeds only at the speed of each generation, with what he calls "inter-generational learning".

Professor Wilson suggests 3 distinguishing characteristics of species which are able to accelerate their evolution:

  1. Innovation - the ability to invent new behaviours
  2. Social Propagation - the existence of a process to transfer skills from individuals to the whole community through direct communications
  3. Mobility - the ability to move about as individuals or a flock

The Songbird Theory of Organisational Learning

Wilson illustrates the "songbird theory" with research on the UK bluetit community which shows how British bluetits as a species mastered the ability to peck open milkbottle tops whilst the British robin never mastered this as a species.

Robins were every bit as innovative and mobile as blue tits and individual birds could peck open milk-tops.

However robins are territorial birds unlike the bluetits who move around in flocks of 8-10 birds. Operating in their flocks the bluetits were able to achieve social propagation and thus inter-generational learning and accelerated evolution.

Innovation is not sufficient for rapid evolution

Arie De Geus suggests that Innovation, in itself, in organisations and teams is not sufficient for organisational learning. We need Mobility - teams and people need to move about and exchange personnel.

This suggests that bioteaming is an organisational phenomenon not just a teaming experience.

We also need Social Propagation and to achieve this De Geus suggests we should keep our team boundaries wide and inclusive and be careful not to tie down team and individual responsibilities so tightly that the exclude the possibility of adhoc networking.


1. De Geus, A., 1997 The Living Company - Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business, NB Publishing

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