Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What is Self-Organization?

I like to explain self-organizing as the capacity for any individual or individuals to identify something they would like to do to make a community better, find others who would enable that action to be a success, and access the resources needed to move to action. When many people are involved in numerous collaborative actions, and they share the successes and failures of those actions with others, the community can quickly become transformed and begin operating in new ways. This is called emergence.

Our brains, our immune systems, termite castles, ecosystems are all self-organizing. This self-organization has enabled each of these systems to be wonderfully adaptable and effective - far beyond what any single cell or termite could accomplish on their own.

Are we self-organized now? Well, when we organize a shopping foray with some friends, we are self-organizing. When we plan a wedding, we are self-organizing. Barn-raisings, where farm families would come together to put up a barn in one day, are a quintessentially American example of self-organizing.

But we're not so likely to be effectively self-organizing in relationship to big problems such as climate change or poverty. We tend to rely on bureaucracies or organizations to deal with community issues. Unfortunately organizations have often become siloed, tending to work alone and build an internal monoculture, and thus have difficulty generating the kind of innovation that the world needs right now. And we've become reliant on the operating procedures of the organization, where each person has a job, you know if you don't do your job you may well get fired, and communication channels are given.

So it can really make a difference to set up a support system for self-organizing. Such a system would include training and coaching to build basic self-organizing skills, incentives to encourage people to self-organize, and recognition of the role of network weaver in helping people self-organize. We'll talk more about each of these in future posts.

What has been your experience with self-organizing? What are the most successful self-organizing experiences you have had?


Noah Flower said...

It's a deep question you bring up, and a good one. It brings to mind the point that Clay Shirky makes about centralized organizations: they're expensive, so we have the ones we can afford. Everything else is left to self-organization. I think one of the major shifts we're seeing with the widespread adoption of web-based communications is that we can do more with self-organization than we ever could before. A flea market used to take a lot of effort to set up and could only serve a small area, but now all we need is eBay, craigslist, and Amazon. We used to need newspapers printed on big expensive presses to publish journalism, but now all anyone needs is a blog. But along with the cheapness of self-organization there tends to be a greater level of chaos and disorganization on the way to achieving whatever goal is at stake. That's particularly evident in the evolution of blogs into amateur, semi-professional, and professional-but-uncredentialed media outlets. The question that therefore arises in my mind whenever attempting to accomplish something through self-organization is: what artfully inexpensive methods can we use to keep it cheap but police the anarchy?

paula.ross said...

The best political campaigns are self-organizing, often outside of party structures, but good political party organizations can create the conditions for self-organizing campaigns. Perhaps the temporary nature of campaigns helps.

Barbara Bray said...

Your insight on self-organized learning brings up some great questions on how to use social media for learning. Teachers are using Nings, Wikis, Blogs, and Google tools to bring everything together at no cost because schools are financially strapped. In doing this, some schools have set up virtual schools where students are responsible for their own learning. They can be but all of these tools can be distracting.

I like what you mentioned about providing a support system to kind of nudge teachers and students along. What I'm seeing is that there are great teachers posting and sharing, but they seem to be the same teachers posting and linking to each other. How do you encourage more teachers to jump in?

You need to provide a coaching support system. I started My eCoach almost 10 years ago - way before all of the social media tools were available. We have around 10,000 members and found that one of the problems with social media is that it takes so much work to keep up with everyone and what they are doing. We integrate social media and found you need a support system. If a coaching system is set up correctly, the teacher and students get nudged in the right direction, they get support when they need it, and there is someone to support them as they build their digital footprint.