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

Can Luhmann help me?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 6, 2009

In the previous post I mentioned Luhmann for the first time. As his systems theory was of initial inspiration for starting this quest, I will try to elaborate on that now. Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist, or, more striking, a social theorist, and his systems theory is very interesting to say the least, but also very difficult to grasp, not only because he has written all of his work in German.


Model of autopoiesis according to Maturana and Varela (1)

So how can his theories help me in my quest? Luhmann’s core element in his theories is communication, not people, which is fundamentally different from traditional social sciences. Communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people. Therefore, society is people’s environment, and people are society’s environment. His theory also states that systems evolve from their environment by chance and have no understanding of how other systems perceive their environment. This process is also known as autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, see model on the image¹), which literally means self-creation, and is closely related to self-organization but also has some recursive elements. Now his theories are not only too theoretical and abstract for now, but also tend to be too comprehensive and raises new questions such as the double contingency problem. Therefore I will try to focus on how his theories or parts of his theories can help me.

I think the concept of communication as a core element can help me. By focusing on communicative action of people and their societies, we’re talking really about an open system. An open system is a black box that itself changes its internal organization as a response to changes in its environment. When these changes in turn have an effect on the environment, a positive feedback loop is established.

To answer the question in the title, Luhmann can partly help me. By seeing the society as Luhmann states it as the environment, it helps me to give direction to cope with self-organization. It helps to see the communicative actions of people and their changing environment as an open system, which reinforce and influence each other. I think I have to focus more on this reinforcement or influence. Basically this is a continuously ongoing negotiation of meaning. Negotiation of meaning is based on the tension (or duality) between reification and participation (Wenger). That makes things less abstract because it enables me to take the context of this research into account. Probably more about the negotiation of meaning in the next post.

¹) This model of autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela) covers the complete spectrum of living systems – from the smallest organisms and animals through to communities such as social insects right through to advanced human societies.


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.