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

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)?

An introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 7, 2009

The last six months we had a student from the University of Amsterdam as an intern, Bob Stukart, who did research on innovation in online communities. The aim of the research was to determine how the potential innovative output of innovation-aimed firm-hosted online communities is affected by sociological factors. For us this was relevant, because at Favela Fabric we foster innovation and collaboration. Our moderators try to facilitate this process by various strategies. One of the strategies we use is intervention, and this research contributed to this. By studying the effects of particular behavior on interaction, knowledge is created about possible interventions that may be applied to limit inhibiting behavior and facilitate creative behavior. This knowledge about consequences of particular behavior may also be valuable with regard to knowing what and how things should or should not be said by particular users. Moderators can use this knowledge for the management of such communities. This way the potential innovative output from such communities could be enhanced. His research of course was scientific as well, and this brought him to the following research question:

How do interpretive schemes, facilities and norm behavior affect innovation-related behavior in innovation aimed firm-hosted online communities?

Now I was very much taken into the research with him because I was his supervisor during this time. And that brings me to the most influencial theory which was used, the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens, which is quite abstract. I will save the results of the research of Bob for later, this post will introduce the structuration theory. The last weeks I mentioned the importance of structure, but not too rigid, such as in the post ‘Coordinated Chaos‘. The structuration theory of Giddens (1984) can help us here I think. Structure is defined by Giddens as rules and resources, organized as properties of social systems.

Giddens' duality of structure

Giddens' duality of structure

The structuration theory of Giddens is a sociologic one. The relationship between the individual and society is of central concern to this theory. Social phenomena are neither the product of structure or agency alone, but of both. Objective social structures are defined by properties of society as a whole and autonomous human agents are defined as properties of the individual (Giddens, 1984). Giddens contends that structure and interaction are a mutually constitutive duality. This duality is somewhat comparable to the reification – participation duality from the Communities of Practice framework of Wenger.

If we look at the figure above, there are three dimensions of structure, which are signification, domination and legitimation. The three dimensions of interaction are described as communication, power and sanctions. The means by which structures are translated into actions are called modalities, which are interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. These modalities can explain why and how interaction is affected. Without going too much in detail, the first dimension refers to production of meaning (e.g. a person with a white coat in the hospital has the role of a doctor), the second to degrees of power (e.g. a police officers’ uniform enable them to fine somebody who broke the speed limit) and the third to societal norms (e.g. formal clothing during most interviews).

In short, structure is something that can be set, it’s organized at the beginning. According to Giddens, they are allocative and authorative resources, and social and formulated rules. Modality can be seen as the tools, it makes interaction possible, and can be influenced along the way. The result is that social interaction, for example on communities, is influenced by structure and the three modalities interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. The interpretive scheme translates structure into actions.

The research of Bob focuses on how this modalities can be made more concrete by the use of creativity and roles. I believe the structuration theory of Giddens helped him a lot during his study. And I think although quite abstract, the theory might help us as well if we talk about online collaborative spaces, or Enterprise 2.0. I think I will end this post here, as an introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens. And maybe we can discuss this theory here. For example, could it be helpful when designing online collaborative spaces?

Parts of this post were extracted form the thesis of Bob Stukart. A future post will zoom in on his study and the results.