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

Everything is emergent

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on May 21, 2010

In a world that changes increasingly faster and faster, the perceived complexity increases with it. It becomes harder to predict the status quo even on the short-term, perhaps even that of tomorrow. The attempts to make predictions become useless. An obsolete approach.

We need to stop acting like we have control over what will happen in the future. We just don’t know. Often we are not even close. What’s the point of making predictions of the future anyway, and then trying to control what happens?

Organizations are the best example of future predictors. They keep trying to figure out the most likely scenario’s to occur based on what happened in the past. Organizations have difficulties in accepting the fact that these predictions are not only a waste of time, it’s even worse than that. They even try to understand what happened in the past based on the present situation. What happened in the past was just one of the possible outcomes. There are no parallel pasts that occurred at the same time and that have led to where we are now. Rationalizing what happened then, is like denying what could have occurred. Sometimes it helps to understand phenomena, but using that for future predictions means that the same mistakes are being made over and over again.

Again, we have to stop predicting, and start nurturing the current situation in a way that good outcomes will flourish, independent of what that outcome can be. It’s not the outcome that matters most, it’s the road to it. The road to it (where ever it will lead) is an emergent path. So many influences are on the lurk, so many that no one knows how many and what they are, that they should be dealt with along the way. They both can be positive or negative, both will have influence on the emergence.

Dealing with matter like I described above is so different then how we are used to, and not only different, but scary as well. To accept and be comfortable with uncertain paths is not suitable for most organizations nowadays. And it won’t be for the years to come probably. However, we see more and more organizations that operate in a networked environment, where many stakeholders play a role. In these situations, long-term strategies are being replaced by emergent strategies, where control does not have a place.

Coming back to the title of the post, maybe it is somewhat exaggerated at the moment, maybe it is more realistic to speak of a change from long-term goals to short-term goals. Dealing with short-term goals combined with iterative processes is a good first step towards completely letting go of control and accepting that everything is emergent. We are humans with brains that can think ahead in time, let’s not forget that important aspect of us.

Crises, what’s next?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on March 16, 2010

In my last post I argued that crises are the result of complexity. While I still hold this argument, a crisis is probably a situation where complexity is at a maximum, if there is a maximum. The situation will probably not become more complex than that. A response I got on the previous post from John Marke was a reference to his paper ‘Why bad things happen to good policies‘. I will come back in more detail about his paper later, but one of the important statements is that all paradigmatic shifts are preceded by crises. That’s interesting, if complexity is followed by a crisis, and a crisis is followed by a paradigmatic shift, then complexity will be followed by a paradigmatic shift.

Complexity → Crisis → Paradigmatic shift

Complexity can be seen as a positive feedback loop towards complexity, while a paradigmatic shift is a negative feedback loop towards a ‘stable’ but new (and temporary) equilibrium. A new equilibrium in the sense that it was not predicted or a situation that was stable before. If we can speak of systems here (depends on your point of view on systems), at least we are talking about complex systems, or complex adaptive systems.

If a paradigmatic shift follows a crisis, then who or what sparks this shift to occur? It’s hard to say. In a complex environment, there is a huge network of resources that is ever-expanding. The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (Metcalfe). That makes it unpredictable where this shift is coming from, but chances are that it can come from a bottom-up, self-organized distributed sub-network within the system. A question that John Marke asks the reader in his paper is ‘how could we empower them’? First we have to identify the possible ‘we’ and ‘them’. Or shouldn’t ‘we’, and should it be more emergent? Marke poses a similar choice, adapt to the complex adaptive system, or harness complexity and have it work in your advantage.

I like his way of thinking, because either you just accept the fact that you can do anything except adapt, or understand some properties of the system (emergent, unexpected, self-organized, highly connected, adaptive). The latter has more interesting possibilities, and is more congruent with these characteristics. Remember, you are probably in this complex adaptive system as well, play a role, and have the same characteristics. It’s not something totally alien.

In this present situation, it is easy to understand that the situation is getting complex more quickly than it did in the past. That means that crises are about to occur more often, and the same is true for paradigmatic shifts. The thing we need to accept is that situations are not stable, and these ‘stable’ situations are volatile and temporary. Solutions are valid for a short period of time, almost by definition. And why do we want to reach a situation that worked in the past, while the environment around us keeps changing in a rapid pace?

This post is my answer to the paper of John Marke. He’s in the process of writing another, on resilience, the solution space of complexity as he puts it.

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?

Coordinated chaos

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 22, 2009

Why do some social media initiatives make it, and others not? The success can’t be assured a priori. Take the example of FriendFeed. I never used it, but the technology was outstanding people say. It was the first service that made use of realtime updates for example. Of course, for the founders things turned out quite well, because Facebook acquired it recently. For open social networks, mass is needed. People can choose their service freely, and positive network effects strongly influences who will win or lose.  The more people you know use Facebook, the more likely it is for you to use it too, and to abandon FriendFeed for example. You’re not really locked-in like you are with using Microsoft Windows and Office, although that latter lock-in is declining with the advance of free web-based alternatives.

YinYangIt is different for corporate social networks. First, it is less social. Not everybody in your life can be connected, just your colleagues. Second, there are mostly no alternatives available. The company chooses to introduce an Enterprise 2.0 application, custom made or out of the box. It’s there just for the company. Third, for the most people, it will only be used during working hours, not very much in the weekends. Fourth, it serves different purposes, like more effective collaboration, not just sharing cool things or experiences that are very funny. However, when people share those it’s a sign they feel comfortable out there. Fifth, there are even more differences. All these differences are a given, and are important when designing and introducing a corporate social network.

Traction Software explains it very well on their blog. INNATS. It’s Not Not About The Structure. Structure is important, but too much structure is a problem, as well as too less structure. Hence Not Not. Starting from scratch is not a good idea, but reinventing the wheel over and over again isn’t either. The right amount of freedom to be able to express your creativity, to find the right information in the chaos, and coming back for more on a regular basis because it contributes to your job and the tasks you have, that’s an important factor for success of a corporate social network.

Setting the scene is what it’s about. Or better, knowing scenes a priori that could be the starting point of a flourishing corporate social network. You never know if it will flourish, but it pays to look for the right balance between coordination and chaos. Like with open social networks, positive feedback can make it happen faster once the right balance is found. And the initial state of the network has great influence on what wll happen later on, like the butterfly effect (great movie btw).

Purpose of collaboration: collaboration

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 7, 2009

Root SpiralWhy do people collaborate? To achieve goals (or to generate whatever type of output) and then quit? No, people collaborate in order to keep collaborating. Time is being invested to be able to invest more time together. Of course, the quality of the time spent on collaborating and the quality of temporary output will influence the probability that collaboration will continue in this formation in a positive way. If people like each other and like the process of collaboration together, people are likely to continue to organize themselves together. That makes collaboration an important purpose of collaboration. This corresponds to one of the important findings of Mark Elliott, which says:

Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative output. [..] Another caveat to the second primary component, creative output, is that the output may take the form of an ongoing process instead of a final conclusion. An example would be an intimate relationship—the parties involved may collaborate very closely towards the successful continuance of the collaborative process.

If we translate this to collaborative software, it should therefore not just be goal-orientated, but collaboration orientated as well. Multiple types of output during the process of collaboration can be good, there is not just one single output that’s acceptable. That said, there must be an initial purpose to start the collaborative process in the first place. Why do we start collaborating? I think it’s the best suited strategy if many people are involved and needed to create output, to generate possible solutions to problems, when people can choose to enter or leave the collaborative process, when access to the process is open to all collaborators (in a stigmergic way), and when new problems can come to surface during the collaborative process. The latter enables the continuation of the process.

In practice, the most important thing is to get the conversation started. Once it is started, it is easier to have it continued. So how do we get the process started, and have it continued and even sustainable at online collaborative spaces as well? So who do we start with? Just lead-users or as many people as possible right away? What are the traces that are set in the beginning? What are barriers to enter or how do we remove those barriers? What are the triggers for people to embrace the common subjects? What kind of output are we after? When can people step out of the process and can others step in? When is it self-sustainable?

All above questions are valid, probably hundreds more are. But it all starts with the same problem, how is the conversation getting started? Is it a big-bang or is it evolutionary? After that, in short, my pledge on collaboration: The journey is the destination….

Participative management

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 25, 2009

RipplesThe post ‘Self-organization defined‘ generated so much discussion, it has fed me with many new insights. Thanks so much. Your visions about self-organizing, participation, management, organizations, emergence and others are well argumented and show deep understanding, and luckily you don’t always agree. I hope I was not the only one who learned from the discussion.

One of the things that made me think was that self-organization is something we just do. It can’t be managed or empowered. Employees always self-organize, albeit with given constraints and power relations. Stephen rephrases part of my problem statement with saying:

How can we change the constraints and power relating so that different patterns will emerge from the self-organization?

One of the directions we should be looking at is the concept of participative management. And that makes me think of the framework of Wenger again, which is always about dualities. Of course he applies the framework to organizations as well. For example, this is how Wenger describes the dimensions of organizational design:

  1. participation and reification – trade-offs of institutionalization
  2. the designed and the emergent – two sources of structure in organizations
  3. the local and the global – combining local forms of knowledgeability
  4. fields of identification and negotiability – institutional identities as key to organizational learning

All dualities are interesting and can be discussed thoroughly, but regarding the post where I tried to define self-organization I will give the most attention to the second duality, the designed and the emergent. An organization is the meeting of two sources of structure, the designed structure of the institution and the emergent structure of the practice. One can question whether the structure of the practice can be designed, or if constraints and rules can be designed, or if the constraints are the structure. Anyway, one of the questions Wenger asks himself here are what the obstacles are to responsiveness to the emergent. In other words, what keeps the emergent from being acted upon? Or how can emergent patterns be recognized?

One of the things we should investigate is the concept of participative management. For example at Semco, they believe that Semco is different from most companies that have participatory management because employees are given the power to make decisions. Even ones, with which the CEO wouldn’t normally agree. That is of course their vision, but I believe that managers that participate not only in the processes he or she is required or expected to do so, but in other processes as well, influence the constraints of emergent behavior by others. These processes or practices can be on the work floor, on other departments, or wherever in the company in order to participate and know more about other aspects of the company.  By doing that, these other employees get to know more of management problems and opportunities as well, which can stimulate more emergent behavior, or if you like self-organization, or more initiatives from the self. Does that influence culture (thanks Paula for mentioning Zappo) as well? Can it be called designing by participation? Does it create conflicts that recognizes problems? Does it foster innovation? Does it create more responsibility? These are other questions that pop up by writing this down.