Home Business Self-”Organization” – A Primer

Self-”Organization” – A Primer

The word “organization” carries with it so much baggage,  I find it useful to have a precise working definition.  It’s hard to get “out-of-the-box” if we don’t understand how big the box we’re in actually is.

I normally define organization something like:

A system of agreements, either implicit or explicit, which guides and coordinates actions among people, makes decisions binding on a group, defines common beliefs, and/or determines access to or disposition of resources created by or available to a group.  Agreements usually cover such issues as authority to take or direct action, management of common resources, manner and consequences of making and enforcing agreements, among others.

This definition is intentionally broad — encompassing everything from culture as a whole to the family unit and friendships.  For many purposes, such a definition is too broad and brings in too many unnecessary complications.  However, if having an impact on social change is part of the intention, I haven’t found anything narrower to be sufficient.

There is a useful distinction between organizations that are formally and legally recognized and those that aren’t, of course.  In everyday speech, when we talk about “an organization,” we normally mean a legal entity of some sort.  We also tend to mean something that is intended to have a fair degree of permanence, as opposed to a one-time contract, for example.  But again, if making a strategic intervention in society is a goal, it’s best to start with an open mind.  Not to mention that modern technology allows for extraordinarily fluid forms of organization.

Scale and Scope

Most major challenges facing society are highly complex.  Aspects of them are undeniably global, while other aspects are highly local, even personal.  Both scales need to be addressed at the same time, and stay reasonably aligned.  The challenges are tangled and interrelated in ways that make it difficult to make significant progress on one without simultaneously making progress on many others.  There is rarely a single “right answer.”  Some answers that are perfectly effective and appropriate to one situation would be a disaster in another, and vice versa.

For this reason, conventional hierarchical forms of organization have significant limitations.  It’s not that they are inherently bad or don’t have a place in an eventual solution.  Quite the opposite.  Nature uses nested hierarchies as a major mechanism to maintain order.  Hierarchies are almost always a part of natural systems.  They’re everywhere.  Nature just doesn’t organize entire ecosystems that way.  Disruption and a bit of chaos are necessary facts of life.  Living systems don’t thrive unless they are exceptionally good at building and maintaining structures (order) while simultaneously making productive use of disruption and variation (chaos).  When Dee Hock coined the term “chaordic,” he was trying to make this point.  Every effective organization turns out to embody some degree of chaorder.

Self-organization is the overriding principle of nature.  It’s how it solves both the scale and the scope challenges of keeping life going despite asteroid collisions, overactive volcanoes, moving continents, etc.  Self-organization can be physical and time-scale independent.  If you want to stay alive, it’s handy to be part of a system that self-organizes.

Not surprisingly, humanity has kept itself alive because of its self-organization skills.

For example, market-oriented economies that allow higher degrees of self-organization tend to out-perform planned or closed economies over time.  Nor is it a surprise that the more democratic or liberal (in the classical sense) forms of government tend to give rise the highest degrees of social innovation.[1]  We are language-oriented and conscious creatures, so we use our language and consciousness to facilitate our self-organization.  We use systems of agreements… …organization.

Preconditions for Self-”Organization”

Distributed forms of organization seek to enhance self-organization, variation and adaptation, while hierarchical forms seek to constrain them.  Both forms are essential to healthy systems.  There’s an ever-changing dynamic balance.  However, while it’s perfectly natural for distributed forms of organization to have hierarchical elements within them, it’s tricky for hierarchical forms of organization to have distributed elements inside.  Too much or too effective self-organization, and the hierarchical systems tend to fall apart (or be out-competed).

For self-organization to work in human systems, a handful of conditions generally need to be met:[2]

Participants in and parts of the system tend to be relatively:

  • Autonomous — capable of making decisions on their own, with sufficient authority to enter into binding agreements.  This needs to be true for individuals, artificial persons (e.g., corporations, governments), or groupings of such.
  • Self-motivated — participating because sufficient value is perceived to be present or potential.  Participation is not coerced.
  • Empowered – able to create new parts of the system to advance their interests.
  • Recognizable – to each other, as participants or parts of the same system.

Agreements among participants should be:

  • Peer-to-peer — among fundamental equals.
  • Enforceable – with an ability to objectively judge compliance, and consequences for failure to do so sufficient to discourage deviation.
  • Compact – understandable to those entering into them and stable for the period of time they are in force.

The system must be sufficiently well-developed to be:

  • Autopoietic — capable of drawing and ordering sufficient resources from its surroundings to create and maintain all of the parts necessary for its ongoing operation.
  • Evolving — generating sufficient variation within itself to be adaptive to changing circumstances and local conditions, in order to differentiate and incorporate learning over time.
  • Bounded – it should be clear what falls inside the system versus what falls outside the system, and who is participating and who is not.  Boundaries can be more or less porous, and more or less discerning about what passes within its boundaries.

These conditions have parallels in all physical, chemical, biological and social systems.

A Few Major Cautions

While self-organized systems may be the only way to address issues or opportunities of a certain scale or scope, there are some important caveats to keep in mind for anyone with a specific goal in mind:

  • Self-organization by itself tends to be value-neutral. Nature isn’t a particularly nice place, at least by human moral standards.  Intentionality and morality are social constructions; and they matter in human systems because they matter to most of us intrinsically and to society as a whole pragmatically.  Most of us prefer to live and work in communities that display a positive intentionality and a commitment to morality.  This doesn’t mean that each of us individually always has good intentions or act morally, but we tend to prefer participating in systems that have those characteristics.[3]  Without intentionality and morality and their core, self-organized systems are as likely to produce poor results as good results.  They just produce results.  Intentionality and morality must be conscious additions [and is a primary focus of this blog].
  • Self-organized systems by their nature are fundamentally unpredictable.  The people who like certainty will not be happy with self-organized systems.  In the real world, certainty is an illusion, of course, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting it (or politicians from promising it).  Highly evolved systems tend to be pretty stable over a given long-term period (think climate) but things tend to be relatively difficult to predict from one moment to the next (think weather).
  • Emergence happens.  Potentially more disturbing than basic unpredictability, there are almost always features of systems as a whole that seem to have no relation to the features of the parts that make up that system.  Adam Smith’s classic observation that individuals operating in their own self-interest can give rise to greater shared value (the so-called invisible hand) is a positive case in point.  The opposite can also be true, of course, with perfectly wonderful parts giving rise to negative outcomes.  Usually, systems give rise to both positive and negative outcomes, at least from someone’s perspective.  Intended consequences sometimes arise; unintended consequences always arise.  Eternal vigilance is the cost of, well, any self-organizing system.
  • The more you try to bias a self-organized system toward a particular outcome, the less likely the system will produce that outcome.  At best, the system will operate more like a hierarchical system, producing a predictable result at the cost of overall adaptability, scale or scope.  At worst, if will simply fail on all measures.  Obviously, I think that there are some effective ways to embed intentionality and morality into organizations, (both self-organizing and hierarchical), but there are limits.  And self-organization is very likely the bet way to reach certain general outcomes.
Whether a self-organized or a hierarchical system (or some combination) is the best choice for any specific objective is a judgment call.  However, there are circumstances in which they have extraordinary advantages over more conventional approaches:

  • Scale — Self-organized strategies have no upward limit on operational size.  And counter to conventional economic models, there tend to be increasing returns to scale rather than diminishing ones, so-called “network effects.”
  • Diversity — Diametrically opposed strategies can be pursued simultaneously within a self-organized system without compromising the system’s integrity.  Diversity of all kinds is a measure of health rather than an operational challenge.
  • Scope — Self-organized systems can be all things to all people. It’s a byproduct of it’s ability to embrace diversity at any scale. Self-organized systems grow by creating and filling initially small, specialized niches.
  • Rapid adaptation — Since every part of a self-organized system has the power to anticipate or create changes in its environment, and adjust its strategies accordingly, very few opportunities go unexploited.
  • Non-dominance — Many circumstances require a trusted, honest broker that doesn’t take sides (or is on everyone’s side).  Conventional corporate approaches tend to create multiple paths for one person or party to dominate others.  Self-organized approaches can be designed to work in the other direction, creating multiple paths to level playing fields.
  • Complex problem solving — Personally, I think of ecological issues here, where local circumstances vary enormously, impacts of actions are felt in unpredictable ways, a number of different scales are relevant simultaneously, and so on.  Conventional organizational approaches founder in the face of such complexity, or impose silver-bullet solution that, well, don’t solve anything.
  • Values based — The core agreements within successful self-organized systems tend to have a high ethical content, and blend well with additional values and communities of belief.

My observation is that many, if not most, of the commercial, social and ecological issues and opportunities of today are struggling with these very challenges.

[1] As long as things don’t get to an extreme.  But that’s a subtlety…

[2] I won’t try to be comprehensive here.

[3] One important exception to note is when we successfully demonize or dehumanize other people to the degree that we no longer fell a moral impulse toward them.

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  1. Your insight here are useful when thinking of the challenge facing research universities as modernity quakes under institutional and ecological stresses of all sorts. Research universities tend to be hierarchical (there is a pecking order with respect to disciplinary prowess, tight admin control and resource allocation pegged to the political economy of revenue generation, the tenure system, etc). Yet arguably the wicked problems we face as a human community on one planet begs for a more distributed and self-organizing form of knowledge production and sharing across boundaries. Your post here helped me gain some clarity as I think about building capacity for scholarship of engagement (in part, using social media to foster deeper community-university relations in use-inspired, problem-solving and solutions-oriented research). Keep up the great work.