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What L&D professionals can learn from ancient tribes

Human evolution has been made possible by the development and deployment of knowledge. For millennia, it has been a catalyst for growth and organized groups of individuals who cultivated knowledge held the competitive advantage — in prehistoric times that pretty much meant they didn’t go extinct. These ancient social groups, named ‘tribes’ by anthropologists, were fully functioning, growing communities. They did not have access to modern resources yet they managed to be organized in a way that ensured some form of prosperity and, most importantly, evolution.

Today’s organizations face a similar threat – while the individuals forming them are not at risk of being eaten or wiped out by starvation, disease or natural adversity, entire businesses could disappear if they fail to learn from human history.

Moving from a stable environment to constant volatility

For decades, companies have developed processes and practices meant to increase efficiency and guarantee success. Operations were set up in such a way that variance was quickly mitigated and predictability was ensured.

Organizations were hierarchically structured and the premises were that everything was closely controlled, roles were clearly defined and all processes were thoroughly described and followed. Although innovation has always been prized, experimentation was not really encouraged.

Then businesses were faced with the challenge of moving from the stable and slow-paced 20th century into the fast-moving 21st century when interconnected technologies and increasingly intertwined economies generate constant friction and rapid change.

Ironically, these fast-paced, modern day enterprises have a lot to learn from the way tribes functioned thousands of years ago.

Flexibility and resilience are the keys to survival

In the present-day volatile business environment, efficiency is no longer the key to success since it is solely predicated on having the right processes and procedures in place. Changes happen quickly and intricate strategies are constructed in time. Odds are that once these are in place, another shift occurs and they become obsolete before they have had the chance to prove their utility.

Under these conditions, adapting and learning instead of abiding by rules previously designed to bring efficiency are the keys to success. Organizations need to build environments that encourage free flow of information.

Empowering workers by encouraging experimentation, relaxing controls and celebrating innovation are also great ways to ensure the business will thrive. More than anything, organizations have to learn how to be resilient and get stronger with each unexpected challenge they have to face.

What can be learned from tribes

Professionals in charge of bringing about the required transformation shouldn’t worry. They don’t need to take extensive courses on the subject of anthropology, nor do they have to go live with some tribe in the Amazon for some time (it might prove to be a rather enlightening personal experience if they do choose to do so, however).

What they need to do is look at how these tribes learned since that was the collective superpower that ensured their proliferation. These ancient tribes had three basic ways of making sense of their world : by closely observing others and animals, by receiving wisdom from their elders, who were storytellers charged with passing on creation stories, and by playing games that were designed to prepare them for life. These easily translate into modern learning modes.

  1. Social learning

    Instinctively, humans learn in a social way. As children, we watch our parents and those around us. As adults we draw on the behavior of those who have more experience than us. Expansion of the new technologies have given us the opportunity to tap into the wisdom of specialists or enthusiasts – the success numerous streaming channels have stand as proof of that.

    Since tribes did not benefit from widespread internet and smart devices and hunting was the number one skill, youngsters learned this by shadowing experienced hunters. They also got knowledge about natural remedies from their resident Shaman and saw how to lead by looking at their Chief. Albert Bandura used this as a starting point for his social learning theory.

    Read more: 3 useful social learning tips for instructional designers

  2. Storytelling

    It’s not an understatement to say that stories make us. They have been around for ages. In the old times, the elders of the tribe were charged with passing on stories about creation or historical heroes. Stories were a powerful medium for passing on collective experiences and traditions.

    With no scientific studies around, they relied on intuition and knew that people are driven by emotion rather than rationality. Stories are constructed in such a way that they activate neural couplings which allow the listener to transform the tales (or their take-aways) into personal ideas and experience.

    Dopamine also gets released by the brain when it experiences emotion and this helps with the accuracy of the memory. Facts are 22 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story, which is why stories have become an integral part of corporate learning strategies.

    Read more: Successfully using storytelling in the modern organization

  3. Gamification

    Although the term gamification is a new addition to the modern vocabulary, using games for learning purposes has been around since the tribal era. They didn’t know about digital badges or leader boards but found that enacting real-life events in a playful way works for passing on useful information and developing skills that were important for survival.

    Tribes used games to teach their young safety, strength, agility and bits of valued wisdom. In recent times, gamification has proven to increase engagement with the learning material. Going beyond the use of points, badges and leaderboards, some research suggests that lesser studied game elements like challenge, narrative and immersion, among others, also have potential for improving training design.

    Read more: Gamification


Learning the way tribes used to does not mean that companies go back in time but that they recognize and tap into some valuable human wisdom. Evolution did not happen by mistake and it is only sensible to apply the mechanics that ensured it in order to move forward.

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