Living systems as guiding metaphors

From the beginning, I and other members of the staff team used systems imagery to describe the Learning Exchange. Every time we did a visioning or planning exercise where I asked people to represent the present or future state of the Learning Exchange by drawing a picture or creating a collage, staff used images of things like spider webs or networks or interlocking circles to describe what we were and hoped to become. This kind of imagery resonated with our day-to-day experience of being embedded in webs of relationships.

But the Learning Exchange was an organizational unit within a large bureaucratic institution. I was someone who had spent most of my career in organizations that operated according to hierarchical models rooted in mechanistic, industrial-era metaphors about how organizations work and even how the world works. I was aware of the contradictions. I tried to reconcile the tension between mechanistic metaphors and more organic ones by telling myself that the Learning Exchange was a relatively flat organization and by experimenting with different ways of organizing the team. For example, we sometimes created ad hoc teams to do particular projects and assigned authority and responsibility according to interests and expertise rather than job classifications.

Then in June 2007, my friend and colleague, Cheryl Rose, gave me a copy of Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. I took what I thought was going to be a preliminary glance at the book and ended up reading it straight through over the next few hours. I felt like I had discovered a comfortable old sweater at the bottom of my closet that I had forgotten I owned. The idea that you could apply metaphors and lessons from the study of living systems to organizations and social systems seemed radically new but it made me feel right at home.

Getting to Maybe gave me language and concepts I could use to ground my thinking about what the Learning Exchange was about and how to further its growth. The description of the adaptive cycle of ecosystem growth and change was particularly helpful. So was the idea that networks provide more basic ways of organizing action than hierarchical structures. I realize now that living systems and mechanistic paradigms both have value as descriptive frameworks and starting points for critical reflection. But at the time I felt that metaphors based on living systems were much more relevant to the Learning Exchange than metaphors from the industrial era.

I was eager to share these discoveries, so I gave copies of the book to all the members of my management team. I tried to apply some of the ideas the book inspired. For example, I tried to focus staff’s attention on how they were communicating across nodes in the various networks they were involved in, and how accurately and how often they were sending feedback along those communication channels. I also tried to develop the team’s ability to remember that our work was part of one or more ecosystems, that we were enmeshed in environments where we could not control all the forces at work. I started being more intentional about whether and how we were being responsive, adaptive, and innovative. 

The Learning Exchange and the adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle that was articulated by C.S. Hollings to describe resilience in ecosystems was used by the authors of Getting to Maybe to help analyze changes in social and organizational systems. This framework identifies four stages in the adaptive cycle: release (or creative destruction); reorganization (or exploration); exploitation; and conservation. The classic illustration of this cycle is when a forest fire causes destruction of a mature stand of trees (creative destruction), which leads to the seeds of many plant species being released and competing for sunlight, water, and nourishment (exploration), which leads to the most viable species exploiting the available resources and taking precedence over others (exploitation), which leads to conservation, the stabilization of the new ecosystem. This cycle is seen to be continuous and simultaneous, i.e., conservation leads back into creative destruction; in addition, different aspects of the system may be in different stages at the same time. This cycle is believed to be ubiquitous to healthy ecosystems, though fraught with challenges (Westley, Zimmerman, and Quinn Patton 2006. See Chapter 3).

new shootsBefore encountering this articulation of the adaptive cycle, I had described the stages the Learning Exchange had passed through in its evolution using the growth of a garden as an analogy (Fryer 2010). My earlier delineation of these stages fits remarkably well within the adaptive cycle model. Integrating the stages of the adaptive cycle with my earlier description I would now say that the first instance of creative destruction or release occurred in 1998 when the idea to establish a presence in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was adopted as a strategic priority by the university. UBC’s pursuit of this idea led to an exploration phase during which we began by bringing student volunteers into the Downtown Eastside, then opened the storefront and started developing other ideas and partnerships. During this period, we planted the seeds of hundreds of ideas. While most of these seeds dried up and blew away, a few germinated and thrived, particularly the storefront drop-in and the Trek Volunteer Program. (See the Learning Exchange story for details on these and other Learning Exchange programs.)

During the next phase, exploitation, (approximately from 2001 to 2005) staff in the Trek Program continued to develop their relationships with the non-profit organizations and schools where UBC students were volunteering. They also began establishing structures, policies, and protocols to manage the program’s continuing growth. In addition, we began working with faculty members to integrate Community Service Learning (CSL) into coursework. The success of these efforts led to a drive to institutionalize CSL so that more students would benefit from this kind of experiential learning.  Meanwhile, at the storefront, we piloted many different programs for local residents, including the English as a Second Language (ESL) conversation groups where local residents acted as facilitators.

The impetus to institutionalize CSL, the realization that the ESL program model was a better way to engage local residents than programs designed and overseen solely by professionals, and the difficulty we faced managing the number and variety of all the ad hoc partnerships and initiatives that had emerged led the Learning Exchange to the next phase: conservation. During this phase (starting in 2006) we took a step back to reflect on where we needed to do some judicious pruning in order to ensure that our efforts were cost-effective and strategic. It was during this phase that the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI) was created as a container for curricular CSL. It was also during this phase (in 2007) that a significant number of Learning Exchange staff members left their positions. These staff changes represented both a crisis and an opportunity. The Learning Exchange suddenly found itself partly in a conservation phase (the natural result of our success) and partly in a new round of creative destruction (caused by the staff departures).

From 2007 to 2011, different parts of the Learning Exchange moved through the adaptive cycle at different times and at different rates. For example, in 2007 with new staff relying on the infrastructure that had already been created, the Trek Program and the Reading Week projects quickly settled back into the arc of the cycle between exploitation and conservation. The ESL program, with its coordinator still in position, continued on its path towards conservation. On the other hand, the UBC-CLI was in the exploration phase for a couple of years. It settled into an exploitation phase and moved towards conservation with its adoption of a decentralized model for faculty support and the completion of a strategic plan to guide the growth of Community Service Learning and Community Based Research. The storefront drop-in was thrown for a loop by the move to to a new space in Chinatown and struggled for a while before finding its way back to the conservation phase.

The university reorganization in 2011 that led to my departure from the Learning Exchange and the separation of the storefront from our CSL programs (i.e., the UBC-CLI, the Trek Program, and Reading Week projects) provoked another cycle of release. But these changes were only part of the picture. Underneath this wave of change, many elements of the essential work of what were now two separate units were solidly grounded in the conservation or institutionalization phase of the adaptive cycle.

For more detail on how the Learning Exchange evolved, see the Learning Exchange story.

For more reflections on the topic of social innovation, see the other articles in The Learning Exchange as social innovation.


Fryer, Margo (2010) How to strengthen the third mission of the university: the case of the UBC Learning Exchange. Chapter 9 in Patricia Inman and Hans G. Schuetze (eds), The Community Engagement and Service Mission of Universities National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Westley, Frances, Zimmerman, Brenda, and Quinn Patton, Michael (2006) Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Random House Canada