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

Open space

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on August 18, 2009

This quest focuses both on self-organization and online collaborative spaces. So far, the first has gotten the most attention. In this post I will address the latter subject. Open space falls within this category and is very much related to self-organization as well. Open space, or Open Space Technology (OST), is a method to work with large groups of people, varying from 10 to 1,000 and even larger. The creators of this method claim that by using this method, it will be easier to solve complex and controversial problems. They also claim that it works best where other traditional methods fail. It’s a self-organizing process as well, participants construct the agenda and schedule during the meeting itself. The following are the four principles of the method:

Open space principles

Open space principles

  1. the participants are always the right people
  2. what happens, is the only thing that can happen
  3. it begins whenever it begins
  4. when it’s over, it’s over

These principles are very open ended, and the method claims that this is why it is so effective. There is no need to prepare upfront, just a theme is announced. When practiced, people gather is concentric circles, depending on the size of the group. There is just one facilitator that enables the session can take place. People can identify issues or opportunities related to the theme and can apply to discuss these topics. Many groups form, and when you feel you can’t contribute you can just leave and join another group. These discussions can last for a few hours. Afterwards these groups can continue online. There are some online solutions available as well, such as OpenSpace-Online, but there probably are more.

What can we learn from open space? Well, personally a lot. It’s quite new for me so I have to dig deep into this. But I can see opportunities when we take the problem statement into account. This method definitely supports self-organization, and organizations seem a very realistic target. But the key to success are as always people and their behaviour. The four principles seem quite easy to understand, but when working with large groups, other factors that our counter-productive will play a role as well. Does anyone know of people that have some experience with this method or have experience themselves? You are very much invited to let me know and help me learn about this method.



Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on August 13, 2009

This post is about participation. The comments on the last posts inspired me to have a look in that direction (thanks Tim and Stephen). Earlier, I mentioned the theories of Etienne Wenger about communities of practice. Some key elements are meaning, participation and reification. For a detailed summary on communities of practice I refer the blog of Tim Hoogenboom, a recommended read. Here I will try to focus on participation. The following is an introduction from Wenger, where he describes the assumtion on which the communities of practice theory is built:

Communities of Practice presents a theory of learning that starts with this assumption: engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are. The primary unit of analysis is neither the individual nor social institutions but rather the informal “communities of practice” that people form as they pursue shared enterprises over time.


This assumption correspondents with the thoughts of Stephen Billing, that you cannot design or manipulate the organization-wide patterns that emerge from these interactions – you can only participate yourself as a human being. I agree, designing an organization does not result in something foreseen, but people can respond to an organizational design such as a vision and strategies. A context is created for people to respond to, and to participate in. This duality of design and ‘the practice’ both influence each other. This alignment is constantly renegotiated because circumstances change, the formation of people change, and people learn.

I believe that participation is the most important variable in his framework. Participation is about communication, interaction, experience and the like. Participation is the process of taking part and also to the relation with others that reflect this process, as Wenger puts it. Participation is a starting point, when communication and coordination is settled. Self-organization is a process as well, as my definition points out, or more probable, my current definition. Maybe participation is a candidate to make it to the next version of the definition.

Wenger uses the term participation to describe the social experience of living in the world in terms of memberships in social communities and active involvement in social enterprises. It is both a personal and social process that combines doing, talking, thinking, feeling and belonging, and involves the whole person, including the body, the mind, emotions and social relations. Participation is quite complex.

Why do I make participation so important? I really believe that self-organization can not completely be designed, because it’s a process that depends on both the organization and people. This process maybe can be described similar to participation. Wenger always uses dualities in his framework. Participation and reification is one of them. The can be seen on their own, but are also interrelated and influence each other. Maybe I have to look for such dualities as well when I try to find answers for supporting self-organization and finding ways  to imbed online collaborative spaces in organizations to empower employees for self-organization. Perhaps it will be easier.

The democratic organization

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 10, 2009

Last week I stumbled on a presentation of Netflix about their company culture. Almost instant I felt the people that made this ‘reference guide on their freedom and responsibility culture’ was very much inspired by the story of Ricardo Semler about his company Semco in his book Maverick which I’m reading at the moment. It is indeed a very inspiring book. Both companies seem to have found ways to empower employees to think and decide by themselves instead of being managed and judged by others, usually a higher level of management. At Semco, you can decide your own working hours, your own clothes, there are very little to no rules that prevent you from doing what you think is best, many can set their own salary but all salaries are known to everybody else, and so on.

The employees sort of organize themselves. They are given to power and trust to do so.  Everything is very democratic, everybody has a say in what should be decided on the workplace. The most existing organizational structures are outdated according to Semler, especially classic hierarchical organizations. Semler really changed the organization which was first led by his father. Of course, this change did not became reality very fast, because Semler himself made many mistakes at first, and many employees that stood in the way were fired. But eventually he learned and the employees learned, and now it’s a very successful company.

If we look at the problem statement for this quest, one of the important parts is ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?’ I think we can learn so much from theory, but we can learn so much more from real examples such as Semco. Employees at Semco really have the power to self-organize, and they feel and know they are trusted to act like it. Trust is very important. Another related value which seems important is freedom. Freedom to decide when you arrive at work, what your salary is, and so on. At Semco it seems that the given trust and freedom results in being responsible for delivering high quality products. It really benefits the company.

When I have  finished reading the book, I will write another post about it and what I learned from it. At this point it is interesting to show the presentation of Netflix. Some values are very similar to Semco, but others are very different as well. What is inspiring, is that both companies seem to be very different from existing organizations.

Can Luhmann help me?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 6, 2009

In the previous post I mentioned Luhmann for the first time. As his systems theory was of initial inspiration for starting this quest, I will try to elaborate on that now. Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist, or, more striking, a social theorist, and his systems theory is very interesting to say the least, but also very difficult to grasp, not only because he has written all of his work in German.


Model of autopoiesis according to Maturana and Varela (1)

So how can his theories help me in my quest? Luhmann’s core element in his theories is communication, not people, which is fundamentally different from traditional social sciences. Communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people. Therefore, society is people’s environment, and people are society’s environment. His theory also states that systems evolve from their environment by chance and have no understanding of how other systems perceive their environment. This process is also known as autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, see model on the image¹), which literally means self-creation, and is closely related to self-organization but also has some recursive elements. Now his theories are not only too theoretical and abstract for now, but also tend to be too comprehensive and raises new questions such as the double contingency problem. Therefore I will try to focus on how his theories or parts of his theories can help me.

I think the concept of communication as a core element can help me. By focusing on communicative action of people and their societies, we’re talking really about an open system. An open system is a black box that itself changes its internal organization as a response to changes in its environment. When these changes in turn have an effect on the environment, a positive feedback loop is established.

To answer the question in the title, Luhmann can partly help me. By seeing the society as Luhmann states it as the environment, it helps me to give direction to cope with self-organization. It helps to see the communicative actions of people and their changing environment as an open system, which reinforce and influence each other. I think I have to focus more on this reinforcement or influence. Basically this is a continuously ongoing negotiation of meaning. Negotiation of meaning is based on the tension (or duality) between reification and participation (Wenger). That makes things less abstract because it enables me to take the context of this research into account. Probably more about the negotiation of meaning in the next post.

¹) This model of autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela) covers the complete spectrum of living systems – from the smallest organisms and animals through to communities such as social insects right through to advanced human societies.

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.

What is the influence of the Internet on organizational forms?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 30, 2009

On the background page, I mention that the Internet enables us to participate more globally, which changes the way we communicate and cooperate. By using the Internet, people leave traces by posting comments, having their visits being logged, writing articles, updating Twitter and Facebook statuses, etc. By doing this, the Internet as complex environment or system changes. These changes caused by humans influences behavior of other humans. For example, articles on Wikipedia are created and getting better because people create articles and make changes to them. Even all changes are recorded and can be seen by anyone. Most of the time, these actions are uncoordinated, but stimulates a subsequent action. Direct communication is often not necessary. This phenomenon is also known as stigmergy.

I also mention that social structures are changing. Now we are more connected than we ever were, and this connectivity between humans will grow further and further. What is the influence of the Internet really? How do organizational forms respond to these changes? Is power shifting from in house to social media? How organizations evolve and adapt to their environments has been historically a major theme of organization theorists (Lewin et al., 1999).

pha0016lTo identify the mutation and emergence of new organizational forms in ‘real time’, as distinct from retrospective historical analyses (once a new form is in wide use), requires longitudinal research. The need for conducting longitudinal studies of organization adaptations over time is not new (Lewin et al., 1999), but is very difficult. It is difficult to have access to organization-specific data at various points in time on adaptation events. This will be a problem for this quest as well, but trends can be discovered. In industries that are undergoing dramatic deconstruction, or are in ‘crisis’, it is easier to discover trends and changes in, or emergence of new, organizational forms (Lewin, 1999). Lewin (1999) and Dijksterhuis et al. (1999) suggest that organizations that have transformed themselves to the ‘edge of chaos’ also will invent a new underlying management logic based on the principle of self-organization that will become the basic driver for new forms of organizing, strategy and leadership.

So I started to ask myself what the influence of the Internet is on organizational forms, but at the same time I have to identify industries that are in crisis because it is easier to track the emergence and mutation of new organizational forms. That means I have to take one step back first in order to make some steps forward. To be continued…..

Self-organization defined

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 27, 2009

In the previous post I ended with saying I have to define the term self-organization very well in the context of this quest. This post tries to do that. I’m very curious to find out your vision on self-organization, all comments are much appreciated. If we take a look at Wikipedia, we see the following definition:

Self-organization is a process of attraction and repulsion in which the internal organization of a system, normally an open system, increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. Self-organizing systems typically (but not always) display emergent properties.

plm-bottom-upThe above is a pretty complex definition, not useful for this quest. The context that is important for me is an organization, hence the part how to support self-organization in organizations in the problem statement, and I’m also interested in how to empower employees for self-organization. Therefore I have to construct a workable definition. The most important elements that are important in this context are people. After reading some scientific material, I think the definition of Francis Heylighen is better:

Self-organization is a process where the organization (constraint, redundancy) of a system spontaneously increases, i.e. without this increase being controlled by the environment or an encompassing or otherwise external system.

Again, this definition lacks an important element, which are people. My definition should be more concrete because of the specific context. But lets elaborate on the above definition first, because in general it is very useful. Self-organization can occur because of changes or triggers in the common environment. It is also spontaneous, because the system or environment doesn’t control this organization. It is completely a bottom-up type of organizing.

Let’s look at self-organization in the context of an existing organization. Traditionally, people are assigned tasks by their management. They are assigned the task because it fits their job function and have the resources available to accomplish this task. This can be very effective in some circumstances, but not always. People mostly have more competences than they use on their daily job, which can really be less effective in other circumstances. So my thesis is that people can be of more value to the organization by organizing differently, more bottom-up by letting the employees assigning tasks to themselves.

So self-organization in an organization is a process where people can self-select themselves when assigning tasks. Self-selecting can occur because of various reasons, for example because people have interest in the task, are familiar with it, or aren’t familiar with it at all but see it as a challenge. Whatever the reason is, it is always a valid one because it is self-selected.  Self-organization doesn’t have to be individual, on the contrary, it works better with many people involved. Forming groups which pursue collective goals is also a form of organization which can occur rather spontaneous. This leads to the first, and probably not final, definition of self-organizing in the context of this research:

Self-organization is a process where people form groups and assign tasks to themselves or the group, by responding to triggers in the environment or system, that spontaneously increases the organization of the environment or system.

Now that we have an initial definition of self-organization, this can give direction to problem statement. How to support it and how to empower employees? But also very important is how we can measure self-organization. How do we know in what circumstances self-organization is more efficient or beneficial compared to existing types of organizing? Other important questions. I will save them for another time.

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Workers’ control and self-organization

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 23, 2009

Red_Flag_wavingSelf-organization can be an important organizational form in the near future. At least, that’s what I’m trying to find out. Questions I have for example are how self-organization could manifest itself in real organizations. Are the bosses out of the picture? And do we always have to decide on consensus? Does everybody have to agree? Most of us can hardly imagine this working. It sounds like a Marxist society. The following excerpt from an article in a flyer of the Irish Socialist Network (Colm Breathnach, Resistance No. 9) that I got in my hands last week tries to explain self-management:

Though the way in which worker self-management operates has varied it usually works like this: there are no bosses and all major workplace decisions are made collectively, usually through a meeting involving all employees. Local decisions are made by the workers in each unit. There are no managers; the job of implementing decisions is in the hands of delegates that are regularly rotated so that every worker gets experience in management. Rather than doing just one job all the time, every worker has a number of different responsibilities and no one ends up doing just boring, unpleasant, repetitive tasks.

Wait a minute, this sounds to good to be true I hear you think, and maybe a bit simplistic, why isn’t everybody working like this? Of course, these are some advantages, and there are some problems as well. The author continues:

This is not to deny that there are problems with workers self-management: How would different workplaces cooperate together? Would consumers have a say in what is being produced? How can the encroachment of the state, whether capitalist or authoritarian ‘socialist’, be resistant? For years a system of worker self-management existed in the former Yugoslavia but it failed largely because it was subordinated to the control of a one-party state. Yet such challenges can and been overcome.

In this excerpt, the author point out some interesting points that could be a problem. For example, would consumers have a say in what is being produced? If workers could completely self-organize themselves by making products, you cannot overlook the consumers. As a consumer you have preferences in how to use the product, and sometimes consumers even make innovations to the product that are later copied by producers, also known as user-innovation on which Eric Von Hippel has written some great books. But what is missing here is a clear understanding and definition of the term self-organization.

So as my quest continues, I have to define self-organization very well in the context of this quest. I don’t believe marxism or communism are the right directions, but I do think that employees could be better used in tasks that the are really good at and passionate about. People all have a unique set of skills, and are not replacable by others. In organizations, the replacement of employees is sometimes wanted, to make no one irreplacable. But that’s not the way to go I believe. Expect a blogpost on a definition of self-organization soon, and please inspire me with your thoughts on this definition.

In how many communities can you participate?

Posted in online collaborative spaces by Bas Reus on July 20, 2009

Today I would like to discuss the growing number of online communities that seem to exist. Just social communities, or commuties with a focus to work together or to innovate. Everyday new communities start, and that’s great. To have a flourishing online community, you have to have some people involved that are really contributing. Contributors (including 3% creators) make up about 10% of the visitors of online communities, according to Gartner. There are probably many people that contribute to multiple communities, depending on their available time they can put in. But the problem is, if more and more online communities exist, in how many can you participate, and as a result, how many communities can successfully exist?


I’m not trying to answer these questions here, that would probably need some real research, but I think these are viable questions. How many people will eventually be a member of any community, and how much time are they willing to invest? Is there a maximum number of communities that can exist together? Will the future tell us or can we tell something about the future? Will there always be an abundance of people who will contribute, or is that a scarce good as well?

These questions came to mind when I read the excerpt of Mushin on the P2P Foundation blog.

Where in the past there was usually enough time for societies and communities to catch up turning knowledge into understanding and eventually wisdom, this seems to be impossible today for who could keep up with the exponential growth of information and knowledge, diversity and complexity in human societies?

The expenentially growing number of communities has its drawbacks, but the environment and infrastructure of these online communities play an important role. How can you stand out as a community? Many factors play a role here. The community management team should comprise of professional people who have matured by understanding that managing a community requires equal respect for all members. That said, maybe the question in the title should be rephrased in “How can communities develop to stand out of the crowd?”

The Internet and stigmergy

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 16, 2009

Stigmergy is a very interesting topic to discuss. The earlier post on the topic explained the meaning itself. This post will elaborate on that, and relates the meaning to the Internet. Where ant colonies rely on stigmergy to communicate and coordinate, humans can rely on the world wide web. Basically this is the same. Both can be referred to as stigmergic communication. Weblogs, wiki’s and social networks are examples of how the web can act as an environment where people can leave traces by posting, reading, commenting and editing. These acts of communications changes the environment in such a way that others can respond to it. The same is the case with open-source software. Everyone is able to contribute to existing pieces of code, and thereby improving the software, and leaving traces for others.

human_networkThe properties of the Internet enable cooperation between many individuals and groups very easily. All people share the same environment, and on many occasions, everyone has equal access to all traces that are left behind in the past. So everyone can act on these traces independently and mostly without any constraints a priori, if these traces can be understood of course. Because of the Internet being a network, everyone in the network is equally connected to any other. This has huge potential for every initiative started on the web, many people can get involved independently and at a very rapid pace.

In corporate environments people make use of the Internet as well, for example on social networks. Many people have a profile on LinkedIn for example. But there are some fundamental differences compared to open examples like open-source software, Wikipedia and the like. In the ‘real’ world, everybody is free to cooperate on projects that were started on the web. You simply choose to do so, or choose to stop cooperating. This stigmergic collaboration has proven to be very efficient. In corporate environments that is mostly not the case. You have tasks that you have to complete before a given time, or there are other constraints that prevent you from cooperating on a project that interests you because you don’t have access, or are not allowed a priori. Not very efficient compared to the successful open-source projects, while efficiency is very important for corporations.

However, there is a trend that can be perceived. Some corporations acknowledge the value of open-source projects, and hire people just to keep contributing to these projects. IBM is probably the best known example. They make use of open-source software, and in return they contribute by collaborating on the development. They really make use of the fundamental properties of the Internet, such as it’s open and stigmergic character.

Because of the stigmergic properties of the Internet, people are able to self-organize themselves. We see that in some occasions happening in corporate environments as well. I think that it will be very important for companies to adapt to the power of stigmergic collaboration that works so well when many people are involved (some say 25 people or more), and can be involved very easily. The only way to make this work in corporate environments is to open up. Open up internal developments, or join open-source initiatives. And this is not limited to just software. The stimergic characteristics make it easy for people to organize themselves. This self-organization of people by people, on a self-selecting basis is very efficient and can be very influential on existing organizational forms that are the case at many corporate organizations. Food for thought I would say…

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