Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Measuring self-organization

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 3, 2009

Talking about self-organization is very often very theoretical. Many existing theories are interesting and are necessary to understand self-organization, for example stigmergy, autopoiesis, the rules of engagement (Wenger), empowerment, swarm intelligence, collaboration and so on. But what is also needed is to find modes or levels of self-organization (thanks Tim). That is more difficult to find out. It is difficult because self-organization is an emergent process, it is very difficult to influence the dynamics of the system or to plan things a priori. What perhaps is possible is to predict certain behavior, but that has its limitations.

erm0811_fig2What can be said about human behavior is that they tend to follow some trends. That can be seen with buying products, listening to certain kinds of music, living lifestyles or following political thoughts. These behaviors can be classified as social. The same can be said about self-organization. It is an emergent process, but an emergent social process as well. Perhaps the only factor to apply with these processes is to influence human behavior. For example, if some people tend to buy certain products, other people can be influenced by that behavior and buy the same. This phenomenon is also known as positive feedback. If enough people believe that something is true, their behavior makes it true, and observations of their behavior in turn increase belief. I think the current predominant public opinion about the various crises is a good example.

But the problem remains. How can an increase in organization be measured if there are no outside forces? Should it be measured from the inside instead? Measuring an emergent process can perhaps only be done while it is happening, in real-time. If that is true, monitoring of processes is extremely important. So while monitoring, what can be considered important to monitor? Social interactions between individuals is  probably where to begin with. Where the system does not have direct influence on behavior, individual behavior does. People respond to behavior of others, where the behavior of all people is not controlled by outside forces, by the system so to say, but by themselves. Autopoiesis and the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann can point me in some right directions here probably.

Interactions between people can have various reasons to occur. Not too long ago I read that the majority of communication between people is gossip. But when measuring self-organization in online collaborative spaces, people do have a shared practice. I think that gossip plays a less important (but not one to underestimate) role here. I think I will follow Tim’s tips and have a look at Wenger again. Luckily, he’s sharing the same practice at the moment by writing down a great summary of the communities of practice theory. That can point me to the right directions perhaps.


5 Responses

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  1. sbilling said, on August 5, 2009 at 03:09

    This is a very interesting post about self organisation, and you are recognising that you cannot design or manipulate the organisation-wide patterns that emerge from these interactions – you can only participate yourself as a human being. These patterns may be creative but they may also be destructive, and they could also be familiar or even stuck.

    I also think that organisations are not systems. People working in organisations use systems and tools to help them do their work, but the organisations themselves are not systems. I have lots of discussion of this on my blog at

  2. Bas Reus said, on August 5, 2009 at 09:39

    Thanks for you comment sbilling.

    I can agree with you when you say that organizations are not systems as you mention systems. But if you look at systems as a process with an input and output, I think we can use the term. It is rather complicated, as society is people’s environment, and people are society’s environment, which I will point out in the newest post which will be published tomorrow. I’m curious what your vision on that is.

    Regards, Bas

  3. sbilling said, on August 6, 2009 at 11:27

    Input / process / output is one of the key determinants of a system. In the process part, the parts of the system are defined in relation to the whole and in relation to their purpose / interaction for each other. But in a system, as Kant warned us, the parts of a system are not people. The parts of a system do not have human consciousness and will.

    So, you have to factor in human consciousness and will. Systems thinking does not have a place for these, and so is a less than useful analogy, even when you bring in living systems, soft systems, complex adaptive systems and so on.

    I am not sure what you mean when you say that people are society’s environment, except that you are drawing attention to the evergreen sociological challenge of the divide or relationship between individuals and society. I follow George Herbert Mead in thinking that the individual is the singular of the social, and that mind is a conversation between I as the subject and Me as the object, so that mind is the singular of the social.

    There are no wholes in social interaction beyond the patterning of human interactions from which novelty can potentially arise, as can familiarity and stuckness.

  4. Bas Reus said, on August 6, 2009 at 12:01

    @sbilling: Thanks again for your interesting and philosophical point of view. This definately makes me think again about systems theory. I agree that the focus should always be on people. Some years ago I read the critiques of Immanuel Kant so maybe it’s time for a review of that. Maybe Luhmann can’t help me after all 🙂

    When I said that people are society’s environment (and vice versa), I mean that communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society (and again vice versa). I’m not sure (yet) how Mead can help me out here.

    I’m also very curious about what you think of Etienne Wenger. I think his theories about meaning, participation and reification (communities of practice) are somewhat applicable to my problem statement.

  5. […] assumption correspondents with the thoughts of Stephen Billing, that you cannot design or manipulate the organization-wide patterns that emerge from these […]

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