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.

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Evaluating wirearchy

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on January 5, 2010

We all know that hierarchical organizational forms are less and less effective and realistic at the present time. Even in the past this form of organization was being criticized by many. Power and authority are not exclusive for the top of the pyramid. People in organizations form relationships with more people, from inside and outside the organization. Organizational bounds are blurring, and the same is true for the bounds of departments. People choose with whom they interact, communicate, and who they trust. Hierarchical organizational forms do not fit in this picture.

In response to hierarchy, we see many terms and concepts that explain different forms of organization. I already mentioned heterarchies, and there are many more that describe networked forms of organization, such as peer-to-peer and panarchy. Another one, one that Harold Jarche pointed me to earlier in my quest, is wirearchy. At the time Harold mentioned this, I’d never came across it before. Now I have had the time to read more about it and to evaluate this organizing principle, inspired by companies that organize themselves differently with result (such as Semco). So what is wirearchy? According to the ‘father’ of the concept, Jon Husband, wirearchy is:

A dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

This definition of wirearchy explains how many people use the web to communicate and organize things. It’s emerging, it’s reciprocal, it’s about trust, it’s about learning and about creating knowledge. And about many more things. The most important characteristic is the flow of information. Information now flows more like water or air, which means it can reach us all very fast, like an epidemic. Key is to negotiate meaning with each other to learn and to gain knowledge, using the continuous flow of information.

Now in my quest I’m trying to pursue self-organization and online collaborative spaces. The concept of wirearchy is very much related. One can choose a place in the network, and by interacting with other peers, one can build (trusted) relationships and learn from the (global) network. The network extends our knowledge. The question I’m always struggling with is, does it really work that way if many organizations are organized like this? I mean, many organizations are still large and top down and have clear boundaries. When many organizations shift towards a wierarchy or network, will it be ‘better’? The opportunities are numerous, obviously. But are these ideas still in a pioneering stage? Which organizations will set the trend, if needed at all? How do we reach the tipping point of organizing in a different way? What is needed (apart from the infrastructure, which is there), and who is needed? Maybe we’re still not ready to reach that point, or better, maybe we are very close to that point, but perhaps we can not identify this yet. The future will tell…

Answering these questions is difficult, and perhaps not even needed. Predicting the future is something from the past. The world is changing too fast for that and uncertainty is too high. So discussing these subjects stays very important, in our way to understand what is going on, to learn from each other, and to stay in a constant dialogue. Is that what organizations should be after? Just have the conversations started, nurture it, and then just never let go of these conversations? Maybe it is. This can spur an organic growth of a constantly changing dynamic network. Therefore I would like to add something to the concept of wirearchy: the dynamic two-way flow should be never-ending, constantly reciprocal, in order to be dynamic and foster learning.

Self-organization as concept of a system?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 12, 2009

The last post about ‘Systems thinking’ again showed differences in understanding of the subject. Mainly when systems thinking is compared to organizations. Can we make use of systems thinking when looking at organizations? Some think we can. Some think we can’t. That’s no surprise, as it is precarious to directly compare an organization with a system. It is very much a matter of definitions. I’m not after a discussion for definitions or understanding of a concept. My assumption (due to the earlier fruitful discussions) is that an organization is not a system, but at least it can help to apply systems thinking on organizations, as it helps to apply other thinking on organizations. The complexity and uniqueness of organizations just makes it impossible to always apply one way of thinking.

What about self-organization? It is not an organization, nor a complex adaptive system, rather, it is a process where organization spontaneously increases. Recently I was pointed to the work of the Japanese professor Iba (thanks Margaret). He’s definitely a systems thinker, especially complex systems and autopoiesis. He explains that there are many differences in theories when people are referring to systems theory. I make the mistake myself, when talking about systems thinking and systems theory. Prof. Iba gives a brief history of systems theory, that developed from 1st generation systems theory to 3rd generation.

SystemsTheoryGenerationTable

The most interesting shift is from the 2nd to the 3rd, from self-organizing systems to autopoietic systems. Iba notes that there is a clear distinction between “self-organization” and “autopoiesis” after the revolution caused by third generation. In this context, self-organization is focused on structural formation, but autopoiesis is focused on system formation. This is where Luhmann comes in. Iba quotes him:

Autopoietic systems, then, are not only self-organizing systems, they not only produce and eventually change their own structures; their self-reference applies to the production of other components as well. This is the decisive conceptual innovation. […] Thus, everything that is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself. This applies to elements, processes, boundaries, and other structures and, last but not least, to the unity of the system itself.

Interesting to notice is that in the thinking of Iba (and Luhmann), self-organization and autopoiesis are concepts of a system. I thought that Luhmann couldn’t help me very much, but now I have my second thoughts on that. By applying his thinking, I conclude what is important is that organization is defined by the interplay between the elements of the system (or organization). The elements (or people) itself are not important for the system (or organization) to work, but the events and as a result the change in the elements and the system (again, or organization) due to the events are what matters.

Unfortunately, I have to compare systems and organizations once more. However, I keep struggling with it, it is not very satisfying. But if we are to understand social behavior in relation to an organization a bit more, I think self-organization or even autopoiesis can be of help. That brings back systems thinking or systems theory, at least for now, because I’m not in the process of developing a new theory here.

To conclude this post, self-organization (or autopoiesis) can apparently be seen as a concept of a system. The constant processes that come into play during self-organization makes organizations (or systems) change constantly. That is, the processes, the actors, and the whole (the organization or system). That makes an organization an almost fluid ‘thing’, like a Barbapapa. Food for thought. If that is true, how can we have an online collaborative space that functions like a fluid, as it acts as an environment (or system)?

Systems thinking

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

Inspired by the many comments on previous posts and their deferring visions (myself included) about systems, systems thinking and systems theory, I thought it was time for a post about these subjects. For now I will focus on systems thinking. We talked about whether organizations are systems or not, what systems are and are not, and if it helps to compare organizations with systems. Very precarious matter, it seemed. To me, it is precarious as well. To compare two things with each other is always tricky. Do we share the same vocabulary? Are we referring to the same? Are we oversimplifying the subject matter? Talking about organizations makes it even more trickier, because no organization is the same. The forms of organizations can differ, let alone the people who make up the conversation of organization. Think Wittgenstein here…

Apple_and_Orange_-_they_do_not_compareLike many people, I like to understand certain phenomena. If we do not understand, we tend to compare these phenomena with ones we do understand, or think we understand. That comparison should help us with understanding the more complex phenomena. While this can be a strategy that helps us, it can distract us from the important aspects of these phenomena as well. This is always a pitfall when comparing apples and oranges. However, systems thinking is not just an apple or an orange, it can make sense to make use of systems thinking to try to understand tiny parts of a larger unit, in relation to other parts.

Can’t we think of organizations as systems at all? It depends on the vocabulary we use and have in common. I think it can help to deduct to some smaller pieces present in organizations. Carter McNamara shares his view, and it contributes to my understanding. His statement on what a system is, shows the complexity of a system:

A pile of sand is not a system. If one removes a sand particle, you’ve still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you’ve no longer got a working car.

The statement above is a somewhat simple example, that illustrates the complexity of a system. When you remove a lot of particles, the pile will collapse or even disappear. Translated to an organization, it becomes apparent what the problem with the comparison between systems and organizations is. Like with systems, every particle in an organization plays a role. It influences other parts. Maybe some particles can easily be removed, because they have little or no influence on other parts. The organization still works as expected, but we call it more efficient. Some particles are more difficult to replace, it has more influence on other parts and the organization will change as a result. Unlike with systems, there are no two particles alike when humans are involved. Therefore, the statement above doesn’t help me that much. The comparison is still a problem. What helps, is the statement of the same Carter McNamera when he explains why it is important to look at organizations as systems.

The effect of this systems theory in management is that writers, educators, consultants, etc. are helping managers to look at organizations from a broader perspective. Systems theory has brought a new perspective for managers to interpret patterns and events in their organizations. In the past, managers typically took one part and focused on that. Then they moved all attention to another part. The problem was that an organization could, e.g., have wonderful departments that operate well by themselves but don’t integrate well together. Consequently, the organization suffers as a whole.

This is helpful. Organizations are not systems, but it helps to look at an organization as if it were a system. Changing something in the organization always has influence on other areas in the organization. The comparison refers to complexity, both organizations as well as systems are complex. It can help to deal with the complexity of an organization. But then again, by looking at it as a system you should not make it a system, the processes that occur in organizations are not comparable to systems at all.

Complex Adaptive Systems, my understanding

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

Some commenters on previous posts on this blog referred to CAS or Complex Adaptive Systems. This term is somewhat fuzzy for me, as I’ve never read about CAS before. So now is the time to do so. A first lookup in Wikipedia is always a good start, so that’s what I did. I must say, the C in CAS already becomes apparent when you look at the definitions. One of the definitions that is mentioned is the following:

A Complex Adaptive System (CAS) is a dynamic network of many agents (which may represent cells, species, individuals, firms, nations) acting in parallel, constantly acting and reacting to what the other agents are doing. The control of a CAS tends to be highly dispersed and decentralized. If there is to be any coherent behavior in the system, it has to arise from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. The overall behavior of the system is the result of a huge number of decisions made every moment by many individual agents.

Water dripsSo this definition says that a CAS is a network, where many actors act for themselves in a response to their (changing) environment. If I interpret this correctly, human behaviour is a CAS as well. Almost all humans are connected to each other via a number of other humans. Or the Internet is a CAS, where many endpoints are connected to the same network, they determine the network, they are the network. Or maybe the universe and evolution as well.

My interpretation is that we use the term CAS when we do not understand the behaviour of a system or phenomenon or when it can’t be controlled. Examples that are given are ant colonies, stock markets, the ecosystem, or political parties. All are difficult to understand, if they can be understood at all, and even the actors in it probably do not understand their system that they are part of, for example the politicians in a political party or the ants in the colony. These systems or phenomena can’t be controlled, their behaviour can seem unpredictable. And that’s a good thing, the urge to control is overrated very much. Maybe some influence can be desired sometimes, if possible.

The Wikipedia article also states that the principles of self-organization and emergence are very important in these systems. The relation between self-organization and CAS became apparent in the discussion on self-organization as well. But then we come to the differences between human beings with a mind of their own, and other players like ants or cells. Can self-organization occur in an organization where people are involved? Or is it just not possible because we can think for ourselves and can act by reason? However, the latter is a philosophical discussion. Do we act by reason or by drifts for power? The philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche thought about that very differently. So maybe this discussion is always a philosophical one.

If we go back to the definition, the C in CAS is only true when you look at the phenomenon from a birds-eye perspective. All the actors deep down in the system are probably not aware (if they could) that they are part of the system, and just follow simple rules. So from their perspectives, there is not much complexity. They adapt to their environment, like a water drip just follows the easiest path. This drip is not aware of the ecosystem that it is part of, just like the system is not aware of the single drip. However, it is possible to influence the flow of the water, because we understand the characteristics of water. But it is not possible to influence the whole system where water is a part of, it’s just too complex.

Translated to organizations, complexity is there or not depending on the perspective you’re in. The higher in the hierarchy, the more complex the organization as a whole seems to function. If you are high in the organization, you’re aware of the size of the organization, and therefore aware of the variety of actors. How they all interact, is difficult to grasp. The lower in the hierarchy, the less you are aware of all the other players that exist in the organization, and the more focussed you are on your tasks which are relatively not complex at all. Well, that’s my understanding at this point.

Heterarchies

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 1, 2009

Many discussions about change in organizations are about the demise of hierarchies and the rise of the networks. Sure, this is a trend that can be seen, but there are not many organizations without hierarchy, and I don’t think hierarchies will diminish completely. On the contrary, hierarchies have a valid function and purpose, there are familiar and relatively simple. However what we do see, is that organizations become flatter, layers are becoming thinner or even removed, and people connect more with other people by means of technology.

Karen Stephenson acknowledges this as well, and comes with an interesting point of view: heterarchies (PDF link to article). The heterarchy consists of at least three separate hierarchies that have their own responsibilities, but must collaborate to achieve a collective good that is too complex to achieve on their own. She defines the heterarchy as follows:

A heterarchy is an organizational form somewhere between hierarchy and network that provides horizontal links permitting different elements of an organization to cooperate, while they individually optimize different success criteria.

What she seems to say, is that hierarchies have their disadvantages that are removed by networks, but either the latter doesn’t work in reality or is too complex. She’s seems to search for something is between, the best of both worlds.

According to Stephenson, it is important to have these different hierarchies engaged. Key is collaboration instead of competition. Partnerships between organizations as you wish, or between business units within large corporations. And she admits that this is not easy at all. When you try to map a large organization as a heterarchy, you have to find connectors. The table below compares the market, hierarchy, network en heterarchy on some features. It focuses on its strengths.
Heterarchies according to Karen Stephenson
I am not looking for a proper definition of heterarchies, or whether you agree with Stephenson or not (well, I’m curious for that of course), but I am more interested in how you can identify people or hubs in an organization that is a connector to other parts of the organization, but not in a hierarchical way. This identification can make such organizational forms less complex. But how do you map these people? Are they certain types of people, who you can trust? Do they have to have certain positions in an organization? Stephenson suggests the following steps:

  1. Send out a survey where people identify other people that you think are innovative, have integrity, work hard to achieve goals, that you depend upon, and ask people who should be surveyed as well.
  2. Find connectors by means of  interviews. People that score high on the surveys can be persons to ask questions to validate the survey.
  3. Connect connectors so they can exchange information, knowing that they need each other. They can connect organizational silo’s and collaborate instead of compete.

According to Stephenson there are three types of connectors, or actors in these heterarchies, hubs, gatekeepers and pulstakers. Hubs know a lot of people and act as facilitators, gatekeepers are critical connections between networks and help people to focus, and pulstakers are asked for their opinions and guard the integrity. So if you can map an organization more like a network, or like Stephenson, as a heterarchy (I’d rather call it the informal connections), what’s next? How can these hubs or connectors be more of use to the organization, how can their strengths be utilized better?

Organic organizations

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 1, 2009

emergenttreeMany discussions have passed the past month about organizations. We all agree that organizations are complex. Some say it are complex systems, others that it are complex constellations, and again others that it are complex social arrangements. Organizations are complex for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that humans are involved. Individual human being which all have unique characteristics and behavior. Behavior that never can be predicted completely, which is tried to be controlled in the past but it’s inevitable impossible to control and undesired if you ask me. To let human beings flourish in their daily life is difficult, not the least because of ourselves. But it can do no harm to not control people. Human behavior is so unpredictable, so unique, so evil and so delightful all at the same time, that’s a given. I will not explain the nature of humanity, not only because I can’t, but our behavior seems to me that it can be quite organic. Like all living organisms, humans are autonomous, have emergent characteristics, can adapt, evolve and learn, all gradually.

When you agree that the most important assets of an organization are us humans as living beings, the most important characteristic of an organization could be that it’s organic. The funny thing is that the term ‘Organic organization‘ exists for about 50 years, but was never proven to exist. It has some similarities with concept of autopoiesis. Wikipedia explains:

For an organization to be organic, people in it should be equally leveled, with no job descriptions or classifications, and communication to have a hub-network-like form. It thrives on the power of personalities, lack of rigid procedures and communication and can react quickly and easily to changes in the environment thus it is said to be the most adaptive form of organization.

However, I think it helps to think as organizations as organic, because it’s too difficult to understand the dynamics of human behavior. And even if we could understand it, we could never act to it, or manage an organization in a way that could take full advantage of human behavior. I also think that the explanation of Chris Rodgers on organizational dynamics, design and development are a very good starting point to understand the diversity of an organization.

We probably all agree on what is important for employees, and on the long term for an organization, is employee happiness. Employees that are happy on their job, are more valuable, more responsible, more motivated and by their positive attitude help the organization be more profitable, what’s good for all employees. Again, that is simplistic put, but organizations, like human beings, are too diverse and complex to understand, but the state of the core assets of organizations should be considered the most important. Maybe even independent on what the goals of the organizations are. Maybe the organization should change it’s goals depending on the people that are with it, because the formation of employees will change continually. Can we learn something from this point of view?

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.