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

Empowerment, a management fad?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on April 19, 2010

A term that is used in many circumstances, is empowerment. It is used on so many occasions (both verbally and in written text), that I feel that it is misused more often than that it is used correctly. Or is it just a management fad, like BPR or TQM?

Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. […] Empowerment is the process that allows one to gain the knowledge, skill-sets and attitude needed to cope with the changing world and the circumstances in which one lives.

Ok, that’s what Wikipedia reads. The post of Mike Griffiths recently triggered (or empowered?) me to rethink empowerment. I can recall some papers I’ve read some years ago at the university about the subject. I also remember the debate it triggered there, because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Empowerment can refer to both individuals and communities. It refers to empowering a person or the collective. How does this work? Some questions come to mind here:

  • Is empowerment something that benefits only people without any power?
  • Who is powerful enough to empower others?
  • Who knows what is needed to empower someone? (perhaps only the unempowered)
  • Who or what benefits from empowerment?
  • Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?
  • Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?

Without answering these questions immediately, I’d like to look at some real world examples where I think that empowerment is taking place. These places have some things in common. These places generally have a leader that leads the company quite different that the common leadership practices. They are not alone and unattainable at the top of the pyramid, they make sure that employees are involved not only in their own tasks and responsibilities, they know what their clients want and make sure that their employees know as well. These and some other characteristics are practices by only a few leaders, leaders that dare to make extraordinary decisions, that give control to their employees. Companies that have some similarities with these characteristics are Zappos and Semco, for example. These are companies that make quite ordinary products, have great results, but run their companies not like their competitors do. I’d like to call these companies examples of the real empowering companies. You just feel that you would like to work for them. That makes a company a great company, if you ask me.

To come back to some of the questions I posed earlier in this post, for example the question ‘Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?‘, I can say it depends heavily on who used the term. It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved. If empowerment is a management fad, is hard to answer. I think it can easily be or become a management fad, but some core-principles that can be attributed to empowerment are really valuable and here to stay. These are universal, humane and part of the science of empowerment.

Another question I asked in this post is ‘Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?‘. Perhaps it is. Empowered employees are able to manage themselves, both individually or in a collective. Maybe it is self-management, however, I prefer to make use of self-organization, for obvious reasons. In the problem statement I stated some time ago, I made an assumption by stating ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?‘. It seems this assumption still stands for me. To be continued…

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.

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?

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.

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.