Emergence and self-organization

March 10, 2013

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Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few powerful people that others implement. Instead, what emerges is the consequence of the choices of all involved in the whole interconnected network, “the connective“, as Stowe Boyd puts it. What happens does not follow a plan or a design. It is about self-organization.

The problem is that we believe that the unit of work is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of managers. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do. But connected, interdependent people can never simply do what they like. If this happened, they would very soon be excluded. Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. Cooperating individuals are not independent.

Inside companies the logic is thought to be different. According to the present approach to management, organizational outcomes are first chosen by a few top executives and then implemented by the rest. Here, planning and enactment of the plans are two separate domains that follow a linear causality from plans to actions. From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes emerge in a way that is never just determined by a few people, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. For example GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”.

Here, emergence means that there is no linear causal link from a plan to the execution of the plan. What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning as pointless, but means that the long-term future always contains surprises.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction, because designs and plans exist only in the ways people make sense of them and take them up in their local situations.

Learning organizations cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or organizational charts. We need to move towards temporality to understand what is happening in time. An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. An organization is a pattern in time. Sometimes these patterns get stuck, or they are repetitive and dull; sometimes they are rich, inspiring, and full of energy. What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that developing things always means developing people. “All learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow.” Doing and learning then mean the same thing.

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work is not the independent individual, but interdependent people in interaction.

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Thank you David Weinberger, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin

More on the subject: the GitHub generation, Sugata Mitra. Video: “Knowledge in a MOOC” Steve Denning on complexity. The mundanity of excellence.

11 Responses to “Emergence and self-organization”


  1. “The organization is a pattern in time.” – We would need some new kind of pattern recognition and visualization aids to better grasp emergence in social entities. That might help to end the tyranny of traditional org. charts. Or would it?

  2. Alain Ruche Says:

    Knowing and not doing is not knowing.
    We must adopt non predictive decision making process linked to uncertainty and emergence.


  3. Many times when people think about work without management they start thinking about work without accountability. Maybe this is tied to the thought that when left alone, the employee will slack off and only work towards selfish goals.

    Actually, this type of true self-organization highlights personal responsibility and helps people recognize their impact on the whole system.

    Great piece Esko!


  4. “Doing and learning then mean the same thing.” Well put.


  5. […] couple of days ago Esko Kilpi wrote about emergence and self-organization with references to the Wired’s article The GitHub Generation: We’re All in Open Source Now and […]

  6. nosapience Says:

    One of the best descriptions of complexity (without mentioning complexity) that I’ve read in ages. This whole paradigm is almost invisible to those indoctrinated into the cult of leadership, but I think the tide is turning. Great article.

  7. nosapience Says:

    Reblogged this on Nosapience's Blog and commented:
    I do like the correction of assumption in here. Throughout history those few lucky ones up top justify their imposition of rule with the mantra that the only alternative to control is the damnation of chaos. It would appear that there is another way, somewhere ambiguously in between. It turns out that the self-organising grey, is more sophisticated than the black or the white.

  8. Jon Husband Says:

    Exactly wirearchical

  9. nosapience Says:

    Excellent post. Notwithstanding the 13th Century craftsmen’s guilds that laid the foundations for modern science by creating networks of interdependent like minds. Albeit considerably slower, I think they were on dial up – 4k at best probably!


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