Monday, October 04, 2010

Singing lessons

If you want to learn how peer-to-peer works; how the absolute dominance of the social self asserts itself; how none of us is cleverer than all of us; about the fluidity of influence and how we distribute knowledge within groups... just go and join in and a good old sing song.

I found myself at a 123 Sing Session (It’s sponsored by Classic FM, I believe – but that’s not how I heard about it...) at my local church on Saturday morning – part of a nationwide effort to get the UK singing more.
Importantly (and influentially for me) this was not an X Factor style individualist approach to singing; it was communal. (Image courtesy Mrs Logic)

I know (as do you) from experience that we enjoy doing things together – from dancing to chanting to singing to learning and playing, we feel better when we do this together not apart; a truth that speaks to the dominance of the social in our lives.

It was this, and the fact my peers were inviting me and attending themselves (friends and family) that got me into a church on a Saturday morning with wife and child.

There were around 25 of us. None of us had ever sung together. Some folks sang in amateur groups. Most of us rarely sang out loud at all. But within 5-10 minutes we were sounding pretty good in four part harmony.
So how did that happen?

Imagine if we took the view that knowledge (indeed messages of any kind) is learned, held and regurgitated by the individual. Each of us would have gone off to learn our part. We’d have done our best to remember our starting note, the timing, the phrasing, the intonations.

And on reunion we’d have delivered a cacophony.

Instead we learned together. None of us learned our own parts in one go. We learned a little. And so did the person next to us, and the person next to them. The musical director didn’t tell each of us which part to remember best. No one listed who should remember each line best, or which phrase of the music best. We self organised and self distributed with nothing spoken.

Yes the musical director gave us the version to copy (he sang it, once or twice) – but each of the four groups learned together. If I couldn’t recall whether the next note was up or down, or when the next word should start or end I didn’t go back to the source (the musical director) to verify. I relied on the distributed learning within the group. I listened to the monkey next to me. And the monkey next to me listened to me.

And we mirrored each other. Nothing spoken. Nothing particularly ‘rational’ even. We self organised an agreed version of ‘the truth’ – in this case the way this piece of singing should sound.

We transmitted the agreed version one to another, adjusting it interaction by interaction – the group agreeing each time through its responses to each interaction what the collective version would become.

Influence shifted moment by moment – those holding the needed-now piece of the puzzle of our distributed knowledge, coming to the fore as required – leading for a moment, falling back when they needed to follow.

In order to perform this task in the allotted time we had a musical director. He ‘knew’ how each piece should sound, and the role each part had in the overall four-part harmony.

He provided the 'purpose' - the common goal we all strove for. But once he had set the framework, his interventions were few and far between. He gave the structure in which the peer to peer interaction happened – a kind of community manager.

That in a very short time we were acting together so cohesively was of course due, in no small part, to the structure. But the most significant drivers were that we are social beasts; we mirror each other’s actions (we are mimics) and we like acting together – we do better together.

The power and value of our ability to distribute knowledge and tasks so intuitively (as in this example, without a word said) is becoming increasingly important as we assess the impact of the web on how we know.

Where once holding a silo of information seemed key to our life success, today our ability to know how and why to access the distributed knowledge we all share is becoming a dominant factor in success both for individuals and for organisations.

And if you ever need a reminder of the truth of that - and our willingness to work together toward a collective goal, go and join in a sing song.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?