The Nature of Instant Learning through Contextual Intelligence

I would like to illustrate the nature of instant learning through contextual intelligence aided by SONEL (Self Organized Nemetic Environment for Learning) through a story written by Leo Tolstoy.

The basic objective of SONEL is instant learning through real life situations (praxis). This is done by applying contextual intelligence through the NEME process to gain new knowledge. The NEME process may be briefly described as:

Notice — changes in the dynamics of a situation in a given context generally observed through movements

Engage – with the interdependent elements as found in a situation or context

Mull — over the numerous interactions that take place within the event/situation/context

Exchange — create new value and behavior from the new knowledge gained (from the context) in the form of adaptation or  re-design or destroying earlier understanding, paradigms, assumptions and systems.


  1. How do we gain new knowledge (emergence) gained through interactions of various elements in a given context (event)? The generator of learning is an event, which in Nemetics is called the R wave.  The aim of the learner is to learn from the R wave to change his/her B wave (collective understanding of an individual or a group) to modulate the G wave (new behavior and actions).
  2. How do learners and facilitators create the quality of a story or the learning process from the R wave? I would like to illustrate through Tolstoy’s story how the process evolves by changing direction several times bringing Energy, Damping and Constraints (EDC) into a well coordinated play.
  3. How does a learner know that the learning is effective?

About the Author: (Leo Tolstoy)

Tolstoy designed a unique form of story telling for children – sometimes half a page (The Mother Eagle – the present story) and at times even in four to five lines (‘The Indian Elephant’). Despite their unusual shortness, his stories are divided into three innate interlinked parts that gives rise to new knowledge and behavior. These are as follows:

A) Event (R wave) –> Reaction (Old Behavior; existing G wave)

B) Experience (Interactions) –>New Knowledge (B wave)

C) New Behavior (New G wave)  –> New Events… (new R waves)

(For a pictorial depiction of the Red, Green and Blue waves see header of this post)

The Story

The Mother Eagle

The mother eagle had built her nest atop a tree next to the highway, a long distance from the sea. Having laid the eggs, she started raising the little birds that hatched out of those.

One day, the mother eagle came flying back from the distant sea with an enormous fish hooked to her claws, and found some people busy doing something underneath the tree. Spotting the huge fish in the eagle’s claws, they surrounded the tree and started throwing stones at her, making a great noise all the while.

Eventually the fish slipped out of the eagle’s claws, and the people took it away.

As soon as the tired mother-eagle perched on the edge of her nest, the little ones raised their heads and began clamoring for food.

But the mother eagle was so tired that she no longer had the strength to return to the sea. So she hopped down into the nest and spreading here wings to cover her babies, started petting them. She carefully arranged and smoothened their tiny feathers, as though telling them – wait a little longer babies, just a little longer. But the more she tried to soothe them, the more they cried in their treble voices.

At last the mother fluttered her wings and swept away to a higher branch, away from her babies.

But the little birds kept crying out all the more piteously.

Suddenly the mother eagle let out a loud cry with all her strength.

Then she spread her wings and dragging her heavy body, flew off towards the sea. She came back well after nightfall, flying very low on slowly beating wings. But, like the last time, she had a big fish hooked to her claws.

Having reached the tree she looked around her carefully, checking for humans in the vicinity. Then she swiftly folded her wings and perched on the edge of her nest.

The eaglets parted their beaks and held up their open mouths. Their mother tore up the fish into little bits and fed them to their heart’s content.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Notice that this short story has been told in three separate sections (Event, Experience, New Behavior), which is structurally the strongest point of story telling or any process for that matter more so for creating the Nemetic environment for learning.
  2. The middle section contains the vital reaction of the mother eagle that leads to new knowledge. There lies the greatness of Tolstoy. It is from the reaction of an interaction that new knowledge emerges (Knowledge as emergence).
  3. In the middle portion (Experience), Tolstoy has inserted part of the eagle’s reactions with an account of her movements; how the exhausted mother eagle tries, for some time at least, to use affection as a substitute for food (the determining authentic constraint in this context, which can’t be ignored, how much we wish in a Complex Creative System). The tired mother expects understanding from her children but the children do not realize their mother’s exhaustion (interplay of energy and damping).
  4. And then, at the end section (New Behavior through instant learning) the mother eagle seems to suddenly arrive at a moment of enlightenment (new knowledge through insight and understanding). At the personal level, she realizes that she must meet her children’s primary need (authentic constraint) before she can expect understanding from them and that is her main and only responsibility. On the social plane, her mind blazes in protest against those torturers who have usurped the food she had procured, with great labor  for her children (the damping inherent in any context). Immediately, she cries out loudly. This cry expresses, not irritation with her children but the ecstasy of discovering two of life’s ultimate truths – one personal and the other social. Lesson for supervisors, officers and managers: primary responsibility – provision, and protest against wastage (social). It is not a ‘take-create-waste’ society – which goes against the fundamental principle of sustainability that is presently affecting the world.
  5. The second section ends and the direction changes (sudden) – shown through a new movement (always shown by a phase change followed by a sudden amplification of energy). By now, armed with new knowledge (by rejecting the older knowledge – the easiest method to unlearn) the mother eagle’s character and subsequent behavior has undergone a change – it is marked by knowledge, inspiration, new intention and protest. Notice that this can’t be shown without bringing in the vital second section – the reaction part that leads to new knowledge. The story thus evolves and the quality changes and unfolds in a new way.
  6. The secret of gaining new knowledge is revealed: Event –> Reaction –> Experience –> New Knowledge –> Try out New Behavior –> New events –>  New reaction…. Thus learning evolves over time, not necessarily in a cyclical fashion. It is more of a spiral nature. Interesting to note as to how the mother eagle instinctively goes through the NEME process — she Notices the changes (loss, human behavior, hunger); she Engages with the interdependent elements (children, human, food, time, exhaustion, sea, tree…); she Mulls over the possible interactions that can bring about new emergence to her disadvantage; and then she skillfully executes the Exchange of new value through her new behavior.  Most management techniques, processes and strategies forget this fundamental premise of behavioral change. They all want to directly change people’s behavior through rules, polices, guidelines, counselling and cascading training and change management programs without creating the requisite nemetic learning environment that enables a change of people’s behavior through understanding events (the R waves), learning from those (B wave) and changing their behavior appropriately (G wave). That to me is the fundamental reason as to why most management processes have failed the test of time as evidenced by our effort to continually upgrade, revise or replace the methods that fail to work. They are not aimed at learning. They are aimed with ‘compliance’ and ‘auditing’  in mind.
  7. We may also like the story because of the variety it provides – the mother eagle’s character is marked by variety. Variety is essential in whatever we do. But notice that the eaglets don’t provide variety. Therefore, the variety can only be provided by showing and mulling over the detailed interactions as much as possible. This is another fundamental reason why most well meant change management programs aimed at improving Productivity fail. They all aim to rule out variety which in management lingo is called ‘variation‘. Little do they realize that variation is healthy. Variations are to be welcomed with open arms. Variations are not to be despised or be ashamed of. Variations need not be hidden from view or brushed under the carpet. Variation is a feature not a bug in a system. Without noticing, embracing and playing with variations no system can ever hope to improve. It follows that without allowing people to see and mull over the detailed interactions that cause new emergence and variations it is not possible for any organization to effectively face and embrace uncertainty to create long term values. In fact, the principle of providing variety might be applied to any human activity – to create lasting values that can be effectively used and exchanged created by means of the SONEL knowledge process.
  8. Facilitators must learn how to guide learners through the NEME process by helping them move from the event (R wave) to new knowledge (B wave) to create new behavior (G wave) and actions (through self awareness). However the event upon which the learner creates new knowledge must be brought to the table by the learner since all new knowledge is essentially born out of pain, agony and hunger, nothing else. The learner feels the pain and the joy of learning.I leave it to you to reflect upon.


I dealt with the  SONEL approach to learning in an earlier post which you would find here: .

NEME that can’t be exactly Named.

Whether it is problem solving or designing or building a business model or taking a decision or for that matter anything practical — four important abilities come together.

a) Notice or discern the ‘differences’ and ‘changes’. (N)

b) Engage with the interdependent constraints in a given context (E)

c) Mull about the dynamic interactions (M). What we think about a situation is not important since it is an opinion at most. It is what the dynamic situation (always creative by itself) wants to do or express.

d) Exchange value through re-design of some sort to change or adapt to existing conditions or assist emerging conditions to emerge the way they desire. (E)

So for any dynamic phenomenon it is a NEME that we exchange. Much depends on whether we Notice or not; Engage or not; Mull or not; Exchange or not. That would help determine both our personal and social character, influenced by our consciousness, which would ultimately determine the fate of an individual, family, community, society, nation and the world as a whole.

Therefore, in Nemetics, NEME stands for many things, such as…

a) A non-linear creative process of coming to an understanding of a phenomenon

b) 4 fundamental abilities that help us survive better

c) Creation of value

d) An exchange of some value, a quanta of energy, a natural resistance that creates newness or a constraint that helps things to flow,

e) It can be applied to physical objects and phenomenon, people, social interactions and a host of other things.

f) Expression of character that determines fate of the individual and that of the collective.

What exactly is NEME then?

Fair to say that NEME can’t be exactly named.

Frontiers & Challenges of Complexity Discipline

I think that the frontiers and challenges of complexity as a discipline has been very well highlighted by Steven Strogatz in his book Sync on page 287 (Ref 1). Strogatz is a mathematician whom I admire for his intuitive approach to maths, which I believe might make maths popular amongst the masses.

I quote from his book the two relevant paragraphs, which I feel are important.

“…. I don’t want to leave you with a false impression. Sync is just a small part of a much larger body of thought. It is by no means the only approach to the study of complex systems. The chemist Ilya Prigogine and his colleagues feel that the key to unlocking the mysteries of self organization lies in a deeper understanding of thermodynamics. They see the emergence of order as a victories uphill battle against entropy, as a complex system feeds itself on energy flowing in from the environment. The community of physicists interested in pattern formation see fluid mechanics as its paradigm, where the rolling of a turbulent fluid gives rise intermittently gives birth to coherent structures like helices and plumes, rather than degenerating into a bland, uniform smear. The physicist Hermann Haken and his colleagues view the world as a laser, with randomness and positive feedback conspiring to produce the organized forms that occur all around us. Researchers at Santa Fe Institute are struck by the ubiquity of evolution through natural selection, not only in biological population, but in immune systems, economics, and stock markets. Others conceive the universe to be a giant computer, running a cryptic program whose discovery would constitute the end of science.

But for now, these are mostly pipe dreams. We’re still waiting for a major breakthrough in understanding, and it could be a long time in coming. I think we may be missing the conceptual equivalent of calculus, a way of seeing the consequences of the myriad interactions that define a complex system. It could even be that this ultracalculus, if it were handed to us, would be forever beyond human comprehension. We just don’t know.”

That is quite a grim reminder that not only reveals a quick glimpse of the unchallenged frontiers of the discipline of Complexity but also throws at us a challenge at the same time.

But I think a very likely discipline that has been missed out or the practitioners of the discipline hasn’t yet explicitly joined in is Engineering, especially the wing that practically deals with non-linear dynamics — the discipline called Condition Monitoring. Having my roots in that discipline I think that the new maths of complexity is mostly likely to be worked out or generated from this field. It is not that the maths doesn’t exist. One thing that is quite mature in the field of Condition Monitoring is  “prediction of emergence in complex systems”. That is how the field got its name. The prediction, as it should be, is always done in the short term taking into account the ensemble as a whole. Admittedly, most of the maths is graphical. But I don’t see any issue with the graphical maths since it does the job so well indeed, which is a) short term prediction b) understanding and interpreting the interactions at play at any given moment along with interpretation of how new orders are created.

The most interesting thing is that it does not stick to one world-view as most streams, outlined above, have done. It sees the world from multiple perspectives – both Newtonian and Non-Newtonian — waves & vibrations, dynamics and non-linearity, sync & resonance, thermodynamics & fields, flow & fluid mechanics, randomness and feedback, wear and electrons, chaos and evolution, determinism and probabilistic. Undoubtedly it is tall order. A true master in this field (though such masters are difficult to spot since they mostly live like recluses) can easily flow from one perspective to another or hold multiple perspectives together at the same time while observing a phenomenon (I am referring to only one rather secretive school; with a handful of practitioners having not more than 10 masters). There are no inhibitions or ideological hold ups.  That is where the masters draw their strength from.

But the maths that might be created wouldn’t look the same as we are used to. And it must not be so. It must not be ‘calculus’ that can predict the past, present and future for all times to come from a single observation. But at the same time it must not overlook the role of ‘differences’ and ‘integration’. It also must not be so universal that it can be applied to all or many frames of references. It must not look like ‘laws’. However, at the same time it must be simple enough for people to make sense to gain insights that would help them to model, adapt, innovate, re-design and predict. What more is needed?

The good news is that Nemetics (a branch-out from that secretive school of practice) research is rather close to creating that practical maths. At least, as of now, it can predict an emergence in the short term for the most complex of all cases close to 85% accuracy. For relatively simpler cases of complex systems the success of prediction is now close to 100%. And that is quite an achievement.

It is based on interactions of three vital components — Energy, Damping and Constraints, without which no real life complex system or transforming process can exist.


1. Sync, Steven Strogatz, Penguin Books, 2003

Problems, Landscapes, Habits; Leadership in the 21st Century

Excerpts from forthcoming book ‘Dancing on Peaks; Resolving Wicked Problems – A Nemetical View of Life


Fortunately, not all problems that we face in life are wicked. For most of these, though relatively few, we can get over them with our effort and practice. And we can do that so well indeed that they don’t seem like a problem any more. Like for instance, my getting to my desk, booting up my laptop, connecting it to the net and then letting my fingers fly over the keyboard at great speed to write this book is a simple problem. Though years back it took me some time and effort to master the process today it is effortlessly simple and predictable. But I remember my first brush with the computer, which was over two decades back and those were tense moments. It took me hours and some training to figure out MS-DOS and hours of brutal typing practice with some coaching from a friend. Resolution of such problems doesn’t require much thought. These can be easily mastered through controlled and dedicated effort guided by mentors if possible. The solution to such problems are known and are easily available. These I call the “library type of problem”. The operating context is predictable. It is something similar to mastering maths. A teacher or mentor is available and the answers are at the back of the book. We can refer to such ‘library type problems’ as problems of ‘flat landscape‘ since it is akin to walking in the park. Such problems can be easily mastered through the ‘habit of memory’.

Then there are problems that are slightly different to ‘library’ problems. It might be something like this – how can I get from my house to my office (10 km) in the shortest possible time and expense without sacrificing comfort. Given the information, such type of problems are straightforward problems. The problem opens up choices and a fairly intelligent choice has to be made. However, the result is always not guaranteed. Sometimes things can go wrong and we can be thrown off our desired intention. Such straight problems are fairly easy to tackle. And with some experience these can be tackled quite well. Hence I call these ‘experience type of problems. Such problems can be framed like – how to climb Mount Everest safely. There is one particular objective to be achieved. Once that can be done the problem no longer exists. More the experience better are the choices we can make and better can be the associated planning. And with better choices, planning and action the targeted outcome is achieved easily. Adopting best practices in the field also helps a practitioner. Hence such ‘experience problems‘ are problems of ‘single peak landscape‘. Such problems can be mastered through the ‘habit of planning and making choices‘.

Then there is a third type of problem which is continuous in time. We achieve something and then prevailing situation demands that we achieve something more. It is like scaling a mountain range, like the Himalayan range, which is full of peaks. We climb one peak and then we try to climb the next peak and then figure out how to reach the next. Sometimes we can get from one peak to the other peak quite easily, if they are nearby with a reliable connection between them. At other times we might have to take a detour, climb down from a peak and then scale up another. In real life this might resemble improving productivity or opening up new markets in a closed economy. While the economic environment doesn’t change much we strive to become better and better from our existing position. These are not very easy problems to resolve. It is similar to a cricketer who excels playing at local level and then aspires to excel playing his game at regional level before trying to move up and play at the national level. This is where complex problems start to surface. It would need enhanced cognitive skills, a basic level of contextual intelligence, ability to learn from mistakes, strategizing, refining intentions, better decision-making skills, emotional balance and continuous moment to moment adaptation without losing a sense of direction over long periods of time. Such type of complex problems may be termed as problems of ‘Rugged Peaks landscape‘. Such type of problems can be mastered through the ‘habit of time and learning‘.

However there is a fourth type of problem that needs constant adaptation in a complex environment. Such systems are called Complex Adaptive Systems. And the problems in this category can be seen as ‘adaptive type of problem’. Continuing our analogy of the ‘rugged peak’ problems, let us imagine for a moment that the ground below us continuously dances and also gives away at time. So the peaks, which were rather stationary in the previous case now start having different heights at different points of time. The peak that appears small suddenly grows big and the bigger peak suddenly drawfs in relation to the peak we are presently on. Nothing remains constant in both Space and Time. These are real ‘wicked‘ problems. Everything is dynamic leaving us clueless about both position and the rate of change (velocity) at any given instant. It might be better to call them the problems of ‘Dancing Peak landscape’.

In this book we would focus specifically on such problems. Such problems need a high degree of contextual intelligence, where previous experience would hardly be of any use. Sharp cognitive skills would be needed that would call for taking various perspectives at different levels along with a high ability to reflect, ability for deep understanding, instant strategy, quick actions and strong adaptation skills. This type of problem can’t be easily tackled by the habits of ‘memory’, ‘planning’, ‘making choices’, or by habits of ‘time’ and ‘learning’. Taking on such types of problems would need the habit of ‘practice of preparedness, attention and serendipity’, that is the habit of a ‘prepared attentive mind’ moving from moment to moment in time. This in Nemetics we call as ‘attentive contextual intelligence’, which is a mix of collective intelligence, combined with feelings, intuition, rationale and intelligence of an individual.

Finding such problems is not difficult. Actually such problems occupy most of our lives; problems for which we don’t have the answers and can’t predict when such type of problems would surface. And they are dynamic in nature. Slight changes in global economy throw national economies out of gear. It affects business operations, which must quickly adapt in order to survive. Customers change. Markets go topsy-turvy. Profitability goes under tremendous squeeze and the notions and targets of productivity and performance change continuously. Job markets fluctuate. Nature of jobs are redefined. Personal lives get affected. Even Nature gets affected. Climate changes. Plants and animals get affected. It then appears that we are caught in a deep and frightening whirlpool.

Under such situations, there are no answers at the back of the book. There are hardly any choices to quickly select from. There is no question of optimization. Experience hardly helps. Dedicated hard work might prove useless. Agility and resilience might have no real meaning. There is only one answer but we are left clueless. There are no best practices to follow, no techniques to use, no process to adopt, no framework to guide our minds. We either get it or we don’t. If we get it wrong we are doomed to be sucked into the whirlpool even deeper till we suffocate to death. If we get it right we live to see another day and perhaps another new moon. However, the only wherewithal we might have to rely on is the quality of our feelings and thinking brought together through the habit of ‘practice and serendipity’ or simply having a ‘prepared attentive mind’ since the need is to adapt moment to moment. Or simply stated, our contextual intelligence can come to our rescue to maintain balance.

In order to develop and apply such contextual intelligence to wicked problems operating in a ‘dancing peak’ landscape, Nemetics is an option. Nemetics is a flexible thought model that allows us to synthesize mathematical thinking, subjective insights and feelings to re-design our lives for the better. The objective of the flexible thought model is to make sense of complex adaptive systems and to act upon them. It may be effectively applied to various fields like organizations, manufacturing systems, engineering, organizational sociology, economics, design, system design, system reliability and even to psychology and a host of others fields.

In short Nemetics can be best described as a study of origins of the various complex phenomena within which we exist. Or in other words it is the ontological inquiry in general that seeks the transcendental truths operating behind everyday phenomenon.

This practice of Nemetics stems from the fundamentals of complexity science as applied to complex adaptive systems and is based on the time-tested principles of Engineering, Chaos, Complexity Science and humanities like social and economic systems.

Since the aim of Nemetics is to gain direct knowledge of the transcendental the fundamental premise is praxis for the simple reason that the theory of such complex emergence (a term which we shall deal with later) simply might not exist. It has to be worked out. The idea is to move from practice to theory and then to practice again.

In other words we first explain the situation, then act upon it and then only predict the outcome as a way of reflecting on our thought process and our decisions. We do so through attentive reflection. It is a practice to train the eye and mind to be prepared and attentive to spot emergence, engage with its structure and behavior, mull about the drivers that drive complexity and then exchange that helps to adapt to complexity.

Life is then in perpetual beta – no hanging on to assumptions, beliefs and opinions. That points to adopting a stance of nuanced but effective adaptation based on ‘attentive contextual intelligence’. It is a tall order, which asks us to do what is needed to be done and then keep adapting and tweaking as time goes on and situations change.

That is what Leadership of the 21st Century would look like. Problem solving would grow lesser in importance. Problem solvers would be passe. Problem and paradox resolution would take prominence. And persons who can resolve complex problems and have the ability to predict in the short-term would be highly regarded and would be in high demand. That can only be done by people who can gain direct knowledge of transcendental truths through their highly developed contextual intelligence. They with their highly trained minds would be simply priceless!


  1. Types of Problems: Library problems, Experience Problems, Complex Problems, Complex Adaptive Problems.
  2. Types of Landscapes: Flat, Single Peak, Rugged, Dancing Peaks
  3. Habits: Time, Planning & Making Choices, Time & Learning, Attentive Contextual Intelligence
  4. It is not unusual to find combinations of ‘Type of Problems’, Landscapes and Habits co-existing within the same situation.
  5. Whole of life is nothing but a series of changes and issues waiting for resolution, facilitation, modification and nurturing to leverage us to new dimensions and states.
  6. Leaders of the 21st century would posses an unusually high degree of ‘contextual intelligence’ to reach essence of complex situations in a wink and know how to deal with those.