The success of a value-sharing program as described above is predicated on a number of factors. Not the least of which involves cultivating relationships where the trust issues just cited are resolved. The literature of complexity science and the study of biological systems that are self-sustaining reveal that human social systems perform much like biological ones (as if we’re not biological!). A community of practice is in many ways a complex adaptive system. An easy to understand way of describing a complex adaptive system follows: Many individual agents following a few simple rules7 which, when played out across the entire population, generates the emergent behavior8 of the whole (colony or hive). Frequently this emergent behavior is surprising and cannot be predicted by looking at the behavior of the individual agents. Ready examples from nature include such phenomenon as the complex structures of an ant hill which couldn’t be imagined by studying the ant. The dynamic of a devastating avalanche could not be predicted by looking at a shimmering snowflake.

In biological systems the simple rules evolve over eons through survival of the genetic programming that matches a creature to its environment. In the commercial world that humans have created, the simple rules get worked out over months and years by matching entrepreneurs to their market and inhabited culture. If the behavior of the individual and the emergent behavior of the corporation do not match the requirements of the market and the culture, the enterprise will not be sustainable.

Rita SterlingHow is a Community of Practice like a Bee Hive?