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

Panarchy, governance in the network age?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on January 26, 2010

In the search for alternative modes of organization, I have come along a few already on this blog. In a comment on my earlier post on wirearchy, I already mentioned the concept of panarchy. Heterarchy, wierarchy and panarchy, all three are suggestions of how organization can be accomplished using alternative modes, in particular in situations where connections are easily accomplished by having online means of connecting. In this post I will try to unravel panarchy, according to Paul B. Hartzog this is a way governance can work in the network age. So what is panarchy? For the ones that have never heard of the concept before, it is the cumulative effect of the shift from hierarchies to networks is a system of overlapping spheres of authority and regimes of collective action, according to Hartzog. In short:

Complexity + Networks + Connectivity => Panarchy

The essay of Hartzog, which is a highly recommended read, explains the theoretical backgrounds and some real-world examples. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I do believe that we are reaching a point where other types of governance are better alternatives as opposed to hierarchical ones. I believe that global crises are about to occur much more often and that we should accept the fact that crises are a characteristic of our modern time. Instead of dealing with crises like we are doing today, that is fight them and trying to reach a stable equilibrium like we were used to do in the past, it is time to accept crises because of the properties of panarchy (such as complexity, networks and connectivity) are increasing and increasing, making the world more and more complex. This situation asks for systems that are complex as well, and not rigid, but rather flexible or fluid, like water that adapts to its environment. Water is a great metaphor here, it is strong, adaptive, and has some characteristics that always work within the same conditions. If we see situations we call crises now as reality and a logical result of increasing complexity, we don’t have to call these situation crises anymore.

So can panarchy be something like governance in the network age? That is a question which I find quite hard to answer. Is it a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Or better, is there a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Yes, you can call the shift panarchy if you like, but what’s the use of that? The paper I referred to does a great job in explaining what panarchy is, and Hartzog argues that it has the potential of becoming the dominant form of governance in the future. The importance of debates like this in my opinion is that many people still work and make big decisions that worked out well in earlier times, but not that good in the present time and not all in the future. The shift that we’re in, that the world is in, ultimately will lead to different modes of organization and governance. Power is more distributed, people are more connected and knowledge is created and transported in networks. Maybe one of the most important things that is happening, is that decision making is changing. It is changing in terms of who are able to make decisions because of where the knowledge is available, who can make the better decisions because of where the most accurate knowledge is available, and who are able to distribute the knowledge to let others make the decisions.

Ok, admitted, the end of the previous paragraph is nothing more than elaborating on the beginning of the previous paragraph and does not directly contribute to the main question here, but that is because (tacit) knowledge and decision-making are closely related to complexity, networks and connectivity, or panarchy if you like. And if the best decisions should be made, governance is important as well as organization. In addition to heterarchy and wirearchy, can panarchy help us as well?

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Purpose of collaboration: collaboration

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

Root SpiralWhy do people collaborate? To achieve goals (or to generate whatever type of output) and then quit? No, people collaborate in order to keep collaborating. Time is being invested to be able to invest more time together. Of course, the quality of the time spent on collaborating and the quality of temporary output will influence the probability that collaboration will continue in this formation in a positive way. If people like each other and like the process of collaboration together, people are likely to continue to organize themselves together. That makes collaboration an important purpose of collaboration. This corresponds to one of the important findings of Mark Elliott, which says:

Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative output. [..] Another caveat to the second primary component, creative output, is that the output may take the form of an ongoing process instead of a final conclusion. An example would be an intimate relationship—the parties involved may collaborate very closely towards the successful continuance of the collaborative process.

If we translate this to collaborative software, it should therefore not just be goal-orientated, but collaboration orientated as well. Multiple types of output during the process of collaboration can be good, there is not just one single output that’s acceptable. That said, there must be an initial purpose to start the collaborative process in the first place. Why do we start collaborating? I think it’s the best suited strategy if many people are involved and needed to create output, to generate possible solutions to problems, when people can choose to enter or leave the collaborative process, when access to the process is open to all collaborators (in a stigmergic way), and when new problems can come to surface during the collaborative process. The latter enables the continuation of the process.

In practice, the most important thing is to get the conversation started. Once it is started, it is easier to have it continued. So how do we get the process started, and have it continued and even sustainable at online collaborative spaces as well? So who do we start with? Just lead-users or as many people as possible right away? What are the traces that are set in the beginning? What are barriers to enter or how do we remove those barriers? What are the triggers for people to embrace the common subjects? What kind of output are we after? When can people step out of the process and can others step in? When is it self-sustainable?

All above questions are valid, probably hundreds more are. But it all starts with the same problem, how is the conversation getting started? Is it a big-bang or is it evolutionary? After that, in short, my pledge on collaboration: The journey is the destination….

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.

What is the influence of the Internet on organizational forms?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 30, 2009

On the background page, I mention that the Internet enables us to participate more globally, which changes the way we communicate and cooperate. By using the Internet, people leave traces by posting comments, having their visits being logged, writing articles, updating Twitter and Facebook statuses, etc. By doing this, the Internet as complex environment or system changes. These changes caused by humans influences behavior of other humans. For example, articles on Wikipedia are created and getting better because people create articles and make changes to them. Even all changes are recorded and can be seen by anyone. Most of the time, these actions are uncoordinated, but stimulates a subsequent action. Direct communication is often not necessary. This phenomenon is also known as stigmergy.

I also mention that social structures are changing. Now we are more connected than we ever were, and this connectivity between humans will grow further and further. What is the influence of the Internet really? How do organizational forms respond to these changes? Is power shifting from in house to social media? How organizations evolve and adapt to their environments has been historically a major theme of organization theorists (Lewin et al., 1999).

pha0016lTo identify the mutation and emergence of new organizational forms in ‘real time’, as distinct from retrospective historical analyses (once a new form is in wide use), requires longitudinal research. The need for conducting longitudinal studies of organization adaptations over time is not new (Lewin et al., 1999), but is very difficult. It is difficult to have access to organization-specific data at various points in time on adaptation events. This will be a problem for this quest as well, but trends can be discovered. In industries that are undergoing dramatic deconstruction, or are in ‘crisis’, it is easier to discover trends and changes in, or emergence of new, organizational forms (Lewin, 1999). Lewin (1999) and Dijksterhuis et al. (1999) suggest that organizations that have transformed themselves to the ‘edge of chaos’ also will invent a new underlying management logic based on the principle of self-organization that will become the basic driver for new forms of organizing, strategy and leadership.

So I started to ask myself what the influence of the Internet is on organizational forms, but at the same time I have to identify industries that are in crisis because it is easier to track the emergence and mutation of new organizational forms. That means I have to take one step back first in order to make some steps forward. To be continued…..

The Internet and stigmergy

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 16, 2009

Stigmergy is a very interesting topic to discuss. The earlier post on the topic explained the meaning itself. This post will elaborate on that, and relates the meaning to the Internet. Where ant colonies rely on stigmergy to communicate and coordinate, humans can rely on the world wide web. Basically this is the same. Both can be referred to as stigmergic communication. Weblogs, wiki’s and social networks are examples of how the web can act as an environment where people can leave traces by posting, reading, commenting and editing. These acts of communications changes the environment in such a way that others can respond to it. The same is the case with open-source software. Everyone is able to contribute to existing pieces of code, and thereby improving the software, and leaving traces for others.

human_networkThe properties of the Internet enable cooperation between many individuals and groups very easily. All people share the same environment, and on many occasions, everyone has equal access to all traces that are left behind in the past. So everyone can act on these traces independently and mostly without any constraints a priori, if these traces can be understood of course. Because of the Internet being a network, everyone in the network is equally connected to any other. This has huge potential for every initiative started on the web, many people can get involved independently and at a very rapid pace.

In corporate environments people make use of the Internet as well, for example on social networks. Many people have a profile on LinkedIn for example. But there are some fundamental differences compared to open examples like open-source software, Wikipedia and the like. In the ‘real’ world, everybody is free to cooperate on projects that were started on the web. You simply choose to do so, or choose to stop cooperating. This stigmergic collaboration has proven to be very efficient. In corporate environments that is mostly not the case. You have tasks that you have to complete before a given time, or there are other constraints that prevent you from cooperating on a project that interests you because you don’t have access, or are not allowed a priori. Not very efficient compared to the successful open-source projects, while efficiency is very important for corporations.

However, there is a trend that can be perceived. Some corporations acknowledge the value of open-source projects, and hire people just to keep contributing to these projects. IBM is probably the best known example. They make use of open-source software, and in return they contribute by collaborating on the development. They really make use of the fundamental properties of the Internet, such as it’s open and stigmergic character.

Because of the stigmergic properties of the Internet, people are able to self-organize themselves. We see that in some occasions happening in corporate environments as well. I think that it will be very important for companies to adapt to the power of stigmergic collaboration that works so well when many people are involved (some say 25 people or more), and can be involved very easily. The only way to make this work in corporate environments is to open up. Open up internal developments, or join open-source initiatives. And this is not limited to just software. The stimergic characteristics make it easy for people to organize themselves. This self-organization of people by people, on a self-selecting basis is very efficient and can be very influential on existing organizational forms that are the case at many corporate organizations. Food for thought I would say…

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Stigmergy and ant colonies

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 10, 2009

In this post I will explain one of the important themes of this quest. It is called stigmergy. In the previous post I already mentioned the term briefly. Stigmergy is derived from the Greek words stigma, which means a mark or sign, and ergon, which means work or action. The term is not used broadly, but is strongly related to self-organization and social beings. According to Wikipedia, stigmergy means the following (accessed July 6th, 2009):

Stigmergy is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.

AntsOk, let’s start at the beginning of the definition. First, it is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions. This happens for example by social insects such as ants. They exchange information by laying down pheromones. These are the traces they leave in the environment, and stimulates a subsequent action. Other social insects that use stigmergy are termites. They roll mud balls impregnated with pheromones, cuing others to roll further mudballs which leads to sophisticated arches and ventilation systems. Coordination is indirect, because they act only on changes in the environment. The ants self-organize, because there are no formal agreements beforehand. They just act spontaneously on changes in the system.

More generally put, the stigmergic system consists of primarily two components, a collection of agents, and the environment in which they interact. Through the agents’ modification of this environment by physical manipulation or encoding signs directly into or upon it, the environment plays the role of medium for a message which acts as a cue, stimulating further actions from agents (Elliott, 2007). This definition of Elliott is more useful for this quest. When we speak of online collaborative spaces, the Internet plays the role of the environment, and a collection of people modify the environment and interact on other modifications. The best known example of this form of stigmergy is the development of Wikipedia. People start and edit topics on Wikipedia, and others enhance them or start new related topics, which are enhanced by others, and so on. Millions of people are involved. This type of stigmergy is also known as digital stigmergy, stigmergic behaviour that emerges when humans work within digital environments.

Collective IntelligenceStigmergic behaviour works better when more agents are involved. Today, the Internet acts as a networked environment where many agents can interact, be it direct or indirect. This network of interconnected people can be compared to ant colonies in some way. Nobody is in control of the environment, and its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. This is also known as collective intelligence (Heylighen, 1999).

To return to the Wikipedia example, it shows the power of stigmergy. The availability of the medium makes it possible for interdependent agents to perform activities that are beneficial to all, minimizing social frictions and stimulating synergy, without a need for a hierarchical control or coordination, a clear plan, or even any direct communication between the agents (Heylighen, 2007). Wikipedia is the best known example, but still just an example. Many more applications exist and will be developed. My question is, should we take stigmergy more into account when designing social software?

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