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

Crises, what’s next?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on March 16, 2010

In my last post I argued that crises are the result of complexity. While I still hold this argument, a crisis is probably a situation where complexity is at a maximum, if there is a maximum. The situation will probably not become more complex than that. A response I got on the previous post from John Marke was a reference to his paper ‘Why bad things happen to good policies‘. I will come back in more detail about his paper later, but one of the important statements is that all paradigmatic shifts are preceded by crises. That’s interesting, if complexity is followed by a crisis, and a crisis is followed by a paradigmatic shift, then complexity will be followed by a paradigmatic shift.

Complexity → Crisis → Paradigmatic shift

Complexity can be seen as a positive feedback loop towards complexity, while a paradigmatic shift is a negative feedback loop towards a ‘stable’ but new (and temporary) equilibrium. A new equilibrium in the sense that it was not predicted or a situation that was stable before. If we can speak of systems here (depends on your point of view on systems), at least we are talking about complex systems, or complex adaptive systems.

If a paradigmatic shift follows a crisis, then who or what sparks this shift to occur? It’s hard to say. In a complex environment, there is a huge network of resources that is ever-expanding. The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (Metcalfe). That makes it unpredictable where this shift is coming from, but chances are that it can come from a bottom-up, self-organized distributed sub-network within the system. A question that John Marke asks the reader in his paper is ‘how could we empower them’? First we have to identify the possible ‘we’ and ‘them’. Or shouldn’t ‘we’, and should it be more emergent? Marke poses a similar choice, adapt to the complex adaptive system, or harness complexity and have it work in your advantage.

I like his way of thinking, because either you just accept the fact that you can do anything except adapt, or understand some properties of the system (emergent, unexpected, self-organized, highly connected, adaptive). The latter has more interesting possibilities, and is more congruent with these characteristics. Remember, you are probably in this complex adaptive system as well, play a role, and have the same characteristics. It’s not something totally alien.

In this present situation, it is easy to understand that the situation is getting complex more quickly than it did in the past. That means that crises are about to occur more often, and the same is true for paradigmatic shifts. The thing we need to accept is that situations are not stable, and these ‘stable’ situations are volatile and temporary. Solutions are valid for a short period of time, almost by definition. And why do we want to reach a situation that worked in the past, while the environment around us keeps changing in a rapid pace?

This post is my answer to the paper of John Marke. He’s in the process of writing another, on resilience, the solution space of complexity as he puts it.

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What defines a system? And what not?

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on December 21, 2009

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.

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)?

Systems thinking

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 3, 2009

Inspired by the many comments on previous posts and their deferring visions (myself included) about systems, systems thinking and systems theory, I thought it was time for a post about these subjects. For now I will focus on systems thinking. We talked about whether organizations are systems or not, what systems are and are not, and if it helps to compare organizations with systems. Very precarious matter, it seemed. To me, it is precarious as well. To compare two things with each other is always tricky. Do we share the same vocabulary? Are we referring to the same? Are we oversimplifying the subject matter? Talking about organizations makes it even more trickier, because no organization is the same. The forms of organizations can differ, let alone the people who make up the conversation of organization. Think Wittgenstein here…

Apple_and_Orange_-_they_do_not_compareLike many people, I like to understand certain phenomena. If we do not understand, we tend to compare these phenomena with ones we do understand, or think we understand. That comparison should help us with understanding the more complex phenomena. While this can be a strategy that helps us, it can distract us from the important aspects of these phenomena as well. This is always a pitfall when comparing apples and oranges. However, systems thinking is not just an apple or an orange, it can make sense to make use of systems thinking to try to understand tiny parts of a larger unit, in relation to other parts.

Can’t we think of organizations as systems at all? It depends on the vocabulary we use and have in common. I think it can help to deduct to some smaller pieces present in organizations. Carter McNamara shares his view, and it contributes to my understanding. His statement on what a system is, shows the complexity of a system:

A pile of sand is not a system. If one removes a sand particle, you’ve still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you’ve no longer got a working car.

The statement above is a somewhat simple example, that illustrates the complexity of a system. When you remove a lot of particles, the pile will collapse or even disappear. Translated to an organization, it becomes apparent what the problem with the comparison between systems and organizations is. Like with systems, every particle in an organization plays a role. It influences other parts. Maybe some particles can easily be removed, because they have little or no influence on other parts. The organization still works as expected, but we call it more efficient. Some particles are more difficult to replace, it has more influence on other parts and the organization will change as a result. Unlike with systems, there are no two particles alike when humans are involved. Therefore, the statement above doesn’t help me that much. The comparison is still a problem. What helps, is the statement of the same Carter McNamera when he explains why it is important to look at organizations as systems.

The effect of this systems theory in management is that writers, educators, consultants, etc. are helping managers to look at organizations from a broader perspective. Systems theory has brought a new perspective for managers to interpret patterns and events in their organizations. In the past, managers typically took one part and focused on that. Then they moved all attention to another part. The problem was that an organization could, e.g., have wonderful departments that operate well by themselves but don’t integrate well together. Consequently, the organization suffers as a whole.

This is helpful. Organizations are not systems, but it helps to look at an organization as if it were a system. Changing something in the organization always has influence on other areas in the organization. The comparison refers to complexity, both organizations as well as systems are complex. It can help to deal with the complexity of an organization. But then again, by looking at it as a system you should not make it a system, the processes that occur in organizations are not comparable to systems at all.