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

Panarchy, governance in the network age?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on January 26, 2010

In the search for alternative modes of organization, I have come along a few already on this blog. In a comment on my earlier post on wirearchy, I already mentioned the concept of panarchy. Heterarchy, wierarchy and panarchy, all three are suggestions of how organization can be accomplished using alternative modes, in particular in situations where connections are easily accomplished by having online means of connecting. In this post I will try to unravel panarchy, according to Paul B. Hartzog this is a way governance can work in the network age. So what is panarchy? For the ones that have never heard of the concept before, it is the cumulative effect of the shift from hierarchies to networks is a system of overlapping spheres of authority and regimes of collective action, according to Hartzog. In short:

Complexity + Networks + Connectivity => Panarchy

The essay of Hartzog, which is a highly recommended read, explains the theoretical backgrounds and some real-world examples. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I do believe that we are reaching a point where other types of governance are better alternatives as opposed to hierarchical ones. I believe that global crises are about to occur much more often and that we should accept the fact that crises are a characteristic of our modern time. Instead of dealing with crises like we are doing today, that is fight them and trying to reach a stable equilibrium like we were used to do in the past, it is time to accept crises because of the properties of panarchy (such as complexity, networks and connectivity) are increasing and increasing, making the world more and more complex. This situation asks for systems that are complex as well, and not rigid, but rather flexible or fluid, like water that adapts to its environment. Water is a great metaphor here, it is strong, adaptive, and has some characteristics that always work within the same conditions. If we see situations we call crises now as reality and a logical result of increasing complexity, we don’t have to call these situation crises anymore.

So can panarchy be something like governance in the network age? That is a question which I find quite hard to answer. Is it a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Or better, is there a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Yes, you can call the shift panarchy if you like, but what’s the use of that? The paper I referred to does a great job in explaining what panarchy is, and Hartzog argues that it has the potential of becoming the dominant form of governance in the future. The importance of debates like this in my opinion is that many people still work and make big decisions that worked out well in earlier times, but not that good in the present time and not all in the future. The shift that we’re in, that the world is in, ultimately will lead to different modes of organization and governance. Power is more distributed, people are more connected and knowledge is created and transported in networks. Maybe one of the most important things that is happening, is that decision making is changing. It is changing in terms of who are able to make decisions because of where the knowledge is available, who can make the better decisions because of where the most accurate knowledge is available, and who are able to distribute the knowledge to let others make the decisions.

Ok, admitted, the end of the previous paragraph is nothing more than elaborating on the beginning of the previous paragraph and does not directly contribute to the main question here, but that is because (tacit) knowledge and decision-making are closely related to complexity, networks and connectivity, or panarchy if you like. And if the best decisions should be made, governance is important as well as organization. In addition to heterarchy and wirearchy, can panarchy help us as well?

2 Responses

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  1. Paul B. Hartzog said, on February 8, 2010 at 21:15

    Thanks for the kind words and link to my paper.

    You say:
    ” I do believe that we are reaching a point where other types of governance are better alternatives as opposed to hierarchical ones”.

    I also believe this, but I think that a lot of people who agree with us make the serious error of assuming that all network-style alternatives to traditional hierarchies are the same. In actuality, however, there are many many kinds of networks, and they all have a plethora of interesting properties: diameter, path lengths, robustness, etc.

    The real challenge is not simply KNOWING that panarchy is pervading every part of the world structures: agriculture, manufacturing, energy, culture, politics, and economics, but doing the hard work of UNDERSTANDING all of the opportunities and challenges presented to us by the diversity and plurality of the new era.

    -Paul B. Hartzog
    http://www.panarchy.com

  2. Bas Reus said, on February 8, 2010 at 21:36

    Paul, thank you very much for your comment. I really think you outlined the opportunities and challenges very good in your paper, really a must read and more attention should be given to panarchy.

    I agree when you say that understanding them is the real challenge compared to simply knowing them (at the same time I do not say that I understand them fully or enough). However, as you can probably agree upon, the shift from understanding to acting is another important challenge. The examples in your paper show that companies are acting (assuming they understand the challenges and opportunities first), but I wonder, are there examples of real-life cases where the results were less successful or rather disappointing perhaps? These are opportunities for learning about it as well.


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