I’ve just been directed to a post entitled Self-organization vs Emergence on Jurgen Appelo’s Noop.nl blog. This was the third of a trilogy of posts on self-organization that I enjoyed reading – albeit belatedly. However, there are a couple of points with which I would take issue, as set out below. My particular take on the topic is based on my informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics, which looks at organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations.
To begin with, I think that there is often an unhelpful confusion between so-called "self-managing teams" and self-organization as a natural dynamic of people interacting together (which is how I read one of the comments on the post). Many writers and consultants prescribe self-managed teams as a ‘complexity-based’ response to command-and-control regimes. But I would see self-organization and emergence as being just as descriptive of organizational dynamics in heavily hierarchical set-ups as in the practical enactment of any other design.
With this in mind, I was puzzled by Jurgen Appelo’s presentation of “human-created systems” and “self-organizing systems” as a dichotomy. From my perspective, all ('organizational') outcomes emerge from the widespread interplay of the myriad local conversations and interactions that make up day-to-day organizational life. In other words, they are co-created by all of the human beings who participate in those conversations. These outcomes include the formal, ‘legitimate’ trappings of organization - its intentionally designed structures, systems, procedures etc - as well as all of the hidden, messy and informal (sometimes called “shadow-side”) dynamics that co-exist with these. As such, even when self-managing teams or other management ‘structures’ are ostensibly put in place through formal processes, the decision to do so and the realization of these in practice are still emergent outcomes of the complex social process of everyday interaction.
Seeing organizations as complex social processes not systems
The above interactions extend well beyond the formally acknowledged 'boundaries' of the organization. So another implication of this is that there is no need to think in terms of organizations as systems, with discrete levels of existence and 'parts' wholly dependent upon an (imaginary) 'whole'. All that exists beyond any present, local, sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations are more conversations. The products of past sense-making (such as formal structures, systems and procedures) only have any practical meaning to the extent, and in the ways, that these are made sense of and acted upon in current interactions. And the same argument applies to the tendency for present sense-making to be influenced by generalized (‘cultural’) patterns of thinking and acting that have emerged and become embedded through earlier exchanges. So, in seeing organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations (i.e. complex social processeses), I tend to talk of both the formal and informal ‘artefacts’ as ‘imprints’ of past conversations.
Interactions as enabling constraints
On a final point, this process and the outcomes that emerge from it are not within the gift of managers – or anyone else to control. Like everyone else, managers are participants in the ongoing process of conversational interaction. Power relationships may well be biased in their favour – often significantly so. And this might enable them to exercise greater influence on outcomes than many other people are able to do. But, they cannot control the ongoing process of conversational interaction, which is self-organizing and its outcomes emergent. So here I would agree with Appelo’s comment in the earlier post, Self-organization vs Anarchy, that this process has no ‘ruler’.
However, irrespective of this, individual ‘actors’ are not free to do anything that they wish. They are both enabled and constrained by their ongoing interactions with everyone else. And, within these interactions, by the ways in which they collectively make sense of and act upon the ‘imprints of past conversations’ - at this time, in these circumstances, and with these people.