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.


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)?