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From 3 Billion to None: What Organizations Have to Learn from The Passenger Pigeon

Updated: Apr 9, 2022

As the global pandemic set in, our ecosystems and our responses rapidly changed. To the surprise of many, our institutions adapted to embrace and implement “remote working” in many forms. It is critical to recognize here that while the modality of our systems changed, their overall assumption in many cases did not. Most workers have returned to their physical stations. Colleges offering remote classes still receive the same content, at the same pace, and often in an even more passive methodology than face-to-face classes. Let’s not be too critical here, as we celebrate the creativity and dedication of our workforce, faculty, leaders, and support staff. Adjustments were profound. My point here is that despite this admirable adaptation, we remain entrenched within a “flock size” mindset, with all our funding models and subsequent compensation and operational finance driven by the same core design. Sure, many businesses and institutions have genuinely shifted. The marketing and social media giants of our world began to push what they already saw coming long before the pandemic—something many call “hyper-personalization.” But many post-pandemic ecosystems are longing for that "return to normalcy." Many believe that their pre-pandemic strategies can be reapplied and that the services or products they provide are just "too big to fail."

Ectopistes migratorius,” more commonly known as the Passenger Pigeon once filled the skies of North America in numbers so large, they’re hard to imagine. Historical accounts describe flocks whose collective beating wings could be heard like a coming thunderstorm from miles away. Skies would literally darken on their arrival and forests shatter under their sheer weight. We are still just beginning to understand how the most abundant bird in the world (over 3 billion strong) could suffer extinction in the span of a human lifetime. Recent theories point to the species explosive growth cycles connecting to habitat loss and human impact. Designed for speed and movement over vast distances, some of these massive flocks had little genetic diversity. Hunted by the millions in just a few of their generations, they could not adapt to survive in smaller numbers. As these mega-flocks began to break down due to this unprecedented pressure, they began to disappear entirely. They could not shift their behavior, nor could they survive as their world began to shrink overnight.

Organizations have a lot to learn from this tragic extinction event. Like ectopistes migratorius, our institutions are designed to thrive in complex ecosystems. Some of our institutions have chosen an “elite” model, where market sizes are relatively small and target specific audiences. Others depend on much larger markets, existing amidst cycles impacted by economics and even external funding. Unlike the Passenger Pigeon, our “flock sizes” intentionally vary. However, if we extend this analogy, we may be headed to a very similar fate. Most of our businesses and organizations group individuals into targeted clusters of potential customers. This fundamental approach is more an economy of scale than anything. By putting individuals into groups, we can more efficiently achieve targeted outcomes. Based on this assumption, our financial models, employee load and compensation, and every aspect of our systems are driven. This is far from the only approach or core assumption in business, industry, and education.

Looking down from the lofty skies we can see a new landscape emerging. The new apex predator expanding across business and industry is Artificial Intelligence. When it arrives on the scene, even core assumptions change. How people shop for goods and services, the music they listen to, where and when to travel, and even how we get our daily meals have been significantly changed by AI and deep analytics. We live in a world of convenience and predictive algorithms that make our lives easier largely stored within what technology calls “the Cloud.” The human experience in general has forever changed upon the arrival of AI. Why would your organization be any different or immune to such impact? It isn’t.

A new layer of highly individualized deep analytics has begun to drive the right object or experience, to the right customer/learner, at the right time. AI sits behind these systems leveraging Machine Learning as these systems adapt to individual preferences and readiness. What results is what I call “Ultra-Personalized” or UP! This is the relentless drive of AI across every profession and occupation. It’s no longer about a schedule of convenience to economies of scale, but rather a focus on individual success. Normative distribution of achievement, common assessments, forced pacing, and even biased entire curriculums begin to fade. Look closely at Google, Amazon, and any major textbook publisher and you will see their parallel efforts to move all education in this “Ultra-Personalized” model. Think about your organization's success rates. For example, in higher education at its best, most colleges remain 35 percent successful in degree attainment and universities who “pre-select” students average 60 precent. Ultra-personalization makes no apologies in seeking 100 percent—every individual. The flock as we know it, is disappearing.

Shift or shrink. This is the choice that all leaders and stakeholders face today. Continuing to push traditional business models or even college class schedules (remote/flex/hybrid or otherwise) is a failed strategy like that of the Passenger Pigeon. This “flock” mentality cannot hope to thrive in a world where the individual supersedes the flock. The good news is a clear way forward exists for our institutions across even brighter skies. As we increase levels of personalization across our systems and services the landscape changes. Partnerships with AI companies, content providers, and advanced technologies continue to advance and evolve. Bold models are emerging that genuinely embrace this highway to personalization and take full advantage of the Cloud. This will shift the role of almost every member across all our institutions.

Recognizing that this incremental shift will take time, we must not fall prey to the many forces that impeded our evolution. Some of those in our flocks will not take kindly to shifting to Ultra-Personalization. Their arguments of product quality, customer service, and even academic integrity and personal fortitude will fall upon the rocks as technology and AI continue to progress whether our institutions do or not. I would share with you that in over 30 years of leadership in higher and public education training thousands individuals, I have not run into one individual who would not listen and even collaborate when treated as an engaged stakeholder or colleague. Not one. Even the most traditional stalwart, when invited into the conversation and genuinely empowered will admit our skies are changing and we must work together as colleagues in how we choose to respond.

This is what I refer to as “Activated Collegiality,” where organizational members, leaders, faculty, and stakeholders work together to map out the next iterations of our collective journey. Begin at the unit, department, or course-level and empower and support your organizational members in the migration from our current flock-mentality to sustainable models driven by individual success. In the coming decades, those members will increasingly leverage technology and AI, forever changing their role from primary “deliverers of content and services” to “designers of experiences.” AI will reduce their burden and optimize individual success as your stakeholders continue to collaborate with you in building an unprecedented quality of life for everyone. This utopian vision must be pursued through transparency and trust. In the end, people are loyal to culture, not strategy.

If we wish to survive, we cannot follow ectopistes migratorius hoping our flocks will adapt. We must shift our assumptions about products, services, experiences, classes, schedules, and employee/faculty load, without diluting our commitment to integrity and the engagement of our communities and stakeholders. A roadmap to this new and prevailing model begins with increasing individual engagement among our current markets and leveraging AI across our products and services. We cannot navigate such skies in the absence of engagement while simultaneously shifting our assumptions on analytics and the insights we can derive from today's increasingly powerful tools across technology. From 3 billion to none within a lifetime offers us a profound lesson. Shift, or shrink.

Dr. Stephen Dunnivant is a retired College Campus President with over 30 years of educational leadership. He has designed and led faculty-driven models leveraging technology and AI to individualize learning across multiple institutions and partnerships. He can be reached at for further comment on AI, Dimensions of Scholarship, Activated Collegiality, Organizational Culture Harmonics, and educational innovation.

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