Inspiration to write about something can sometimes be hard to find. That’s what’s happened to me this year. For whatever reason, writing on this blog didn’t happen at all. Fortunately inspiration is best found when you’re not looking for it, thanks to Chris Jones while mentioning his latest blogpost. Chris wrote about science and philosophy. He argues for a common ground called complexity. Interesting post, I would recommend anyone to read it fully. It was this post that made me think about the importance of philosophy in many fields. My reply on Chris’ post was the following:
Science is timely, philosophy is timeless. What’s true now in science can be false tomorrow. That’s a fact. In philosophy there is no true or false. What’s true in situation A, can be false in situation B. Differences in culture, beliefs, age, etc. defines what’s true or not in philosophy, and in general this diversity in thinking is considered a richness for many of us. It enables us to change perspective and rethink theories or ‘facts’ that can lead to other conclusions. In many cases it can even change the current state of science (think radical, for example the concepts of time or gravity). So science benefits from philosophy, like many fields of interest benefits from philosophy. Without philosophy, science would not progress. So therefore I would argue that science, like many other fields is a dependent of philosophy.
Because Chris put science and philosophy next to each other in a picture, like they represent two separate modes of thinking, that made me think. When you place philosophy on the right (like in the picture), then the left part is not only science. I rather would place philosophy in the center as it represents our ability to think (both left and right in the brain), and science as one of the many satellites around philosophy. Science is a product of our thinking, philosophy is the process of thinking. But what about art?
I use the term process because in philosophy, there is no common ground, no result. Only the topics are shared amongst them. Many philosophers disagree on the big questions in life. Religion, existence, free will, reason, ethics; these are the big topics that make philosophers think. The ambiguity in philosophy between many philosophers’ thinking is key to make progress here. The seeming inefficiency by disagreement is actually very effective. It’s the only way we can think from different perspectives, making it possible to advance in science, technology, political issues, human rights and so on. In that sense, philosophy is at the center of everything we can imagine. There would be no science without philosophy, neither would there be religion or ethics.
Philosophy is the process of thinking. Wisdom and knowledge (to name a few) the result. In that sense, you cannot argue that philosophy is in our right brain, or science on the right. I would compare it with the duality introduced by Wenger: “The negotiation of meaning involves the interaction of two processes, participation and reification, which form a duality“, where reification is the result of the process of participation, making the abstract more concrete.
Well, after some posts about systems thinking and complex adaptive systems, the discussions where fruitful, but many of us are still disagree quite strongly about certain statements I or others have made in these posts and discussions. One of the disagreements is whether an organization is a system or not, or if you can look at an organization like it is a system. For me, it’s not 100% clear what a system is. Neither is it clear for me whether an organization is a system or not. What helps me, is to look at an organization as if it were a system, like for example Carter MacNamara does.
Some of us, myself included, thinks that it would help if we can agree on an operational definition of a system first. It would help in the dialogue, in discussing some topics that are strongly related to systems. It helps if the discussion would not be distracted by defining what a system is or is not. In this post I will try to accomplish to define a system. While this can seem as a useless try, because it seems so obvious to many, I think it can help. To start as blank as possible, let’s have a look what our friend Wikipedia says about systems:
A system is a set of interacting or interdependent entities forming an integrated whole. The concept of an ‘integrated whole’ can also be stated in terms of a system embodying a set of relationships which are differentiated from relationships of the set to other elements, and from relationships between an element of the set and elements not a part of the relational regime.
Quite abstract definition. But hold on, the definition of a system is further characterized by the following common characteristics:
- Systems have structure, defined by parts and their composition;
- Systems have behavior, which involves inputs, processing and outputs of material, energy or information;
- Systems have interconnectivity: the various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.
Let’s try to zoom in on some parts of this definition. Structure and interconnectivity is a rather common characteristic of many concepts. I think we can skip these here. The problematic characteristic is behavior. Apparently it involves input, processing and output, like a black box. What kind of behavior do we mean? Just systematic? Is it standard, predictable behavior? Or is complex and unpredictable allowed as well? Does the behavior show patterns or not? Are these causalities or not? Can a system always be optimized and made more efficient? Is there always a negative feedback loop in a system to control its behavior? Is there a desired state? All questions that are difficult to answer, but can be relevant when trying to zoom in on the behavior of a system. Another question is, which behavior makes it impossible to be a system? When can’t we speak of a system?
When thinking about systems and organizations, you immediately come across the differences between the two. People like to compare the two, because many people like to think that organizations can be controlled. However, unlike most natural systems, organizations are started and end in failure many times. Many times they fail because it can’t be controlled. It is more complex.
This comparison is clearly a problem we can not easily solve. It is quite philosophic, and it depends on what your worldview is how you look at it. However, a workable definition we can agree upon would be nice for the dialogue, so we can make the next steps. Unfortunately, if we look at systems like systems philosophy, it gets even more difficult.
According to systems philosophy, there are no “systems” in nature. The universe, the world and nature have no ability to describe themselves. That which is, is. With respect to nature, conceptual systems are merely models that humans create in an attempt to understand the environment in which they live. The system model is used because it more accurately describes the observations.
According to the above definition, there are no natural systems, only models. More on systems philosophy:
Systems are further expressed by listing the elements relationships, wholes, and rules associated with that system. Again, this is an arbitrary exercise true of all models humans create.
If it was difficult to define what a system is or is not, it sort of becomes impossible by now by using the word arbitrary. No wonder we cannot come to an agreement, and no wonder the discussion was taken over so often by the systems discussion. Can we say that everybody’s arguments are arbitrary? Does it all depend on the philosophical worldview (organic, mechanistic and process) you have that all compete with each other?
I started this post with two questions, but now I have many more questions instead of answering the first two. Not a problem at all, however, I hoped to come to a workable definition that would help structure the dialogue. Perhaps too much to ask for in a single try. I hope that you can add your view on the definition of a system, that will contribute to the understanding of systems thinking, complex adaptive systems and other concepts alike. Not to mention open and closed systems, or stochastic and deterministic systems.
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.
So 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.
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.