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.


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…..

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?”

Social software, out or in?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 13, 2009

Enterprise 2.0 is a hot topic and is getting hotter every day. Since Google announced Wave lately, the topic is almost melting. Personally, I think enterprise 2.0 is quite misleading. Of course, the word enterprise is by itself misleading. Enter, or ‘in between’, and prise, that comes from ‘to take’ together forms ‘to take what is in between’. Not a very social meaning if you ask me. Especially when you think that Enterprise 2.0 is often referring to using social tools inside the firm, like on intranets. But ok, I’ll accept the term ‘Enterprise 2.0’ because it is becoming so well known and broadly used and that’s how language shapes itself.

ConnectionsSo back to the problem I have with the term. Social software used within the firm is becoming more mainstream. Many software vendors have solutions for this like Microsoft Sharepoint, Telligent Community Server and IBM/Lotus Connections. Many others have custom made solutions. But they all have one thing in common, their purpose is to enable employees to work together more efficient bymaking  collaboration, communication and sharing possible on their intranets. The latter part is where I have a problem with. How social is it when you can only be social with your colleagues? People are more and more familiar with social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This is another world compared to the closed intranets. That’s right, closed. How social is that?

My point is that the usage of social software on intranets (and extranets) is a very good development, but why is it still closed? Why isn’t it more integrated with the open networks like Facebook? The lives of the employees that make use of products like Sharepoint reach further than that, especcially on the web. For many people the distinction between work and their personal lives is getting less evident. Employees can communicate with friends or likeminded people through e-mail and social networks, even during working hours, why not through the Enterprise 2.0 solutions? Shouldn’t the social networks be more interrelated, inside and outside the company? Wouldn’t that be more productive?