#166 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 7          July 1995

The Self-organizing Workplace
Jeffrey Goldstein, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Goldstein is a professor in the School of Management and Business, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York.  He does research in the application of nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory to corporations and institutions described in his book, The Unshackled Organization: Facing the Challenge of Unpredictability Through Spontaneous Reorganization (Productivity Press, Portland, Oregon, 1994).  Heís also president of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences.

A fascinating area of research in the new nonlinear systems sciences (chaos and complexity theories) is self-organization, or the sudden emergence of new organizing patterns in a physical or mathematical system.  These new organizing patterns are self-organizing because they arise spontaneously out of the system's own resources and arenít the result of an external or hierarchical imposition.  Self-organization represents a creative response of the system to specific challenges facing it.  Examples of self-organization include:  hexagonally-shaped connection cells appearing in certain liquids when heated on the bottom to a critical temperature; "chemical clocks" which show a temporal pattern of periodically shifting colors when appropriate chemical conditions are met; and the morphogenesis of the slime mold from a simple organism into a complex aggregate in response to changes in environmental nutrients.

Self-organizing processes are not limited to simple physical and mathematical systems, they can also be seen in social systems including businesses and institutions when people spontaneously come together to accomplish some objective without being told to.  As youíll see, self-organization is necessary for a group or organizationís ability to be creative and innovative.  Such self-organizing processes can have several advantages over hierarchically-imposed structures.  First, the individuals spontaneously want to be involved, they are not there because of management coercion.  This means resistance to change doesn't arise.  In fact, resistance to organizational change, itself, can be seen as a self-organizing process, albeit one opposed to management objectives.  Also, self-organization in the work environment marks a spontaneous innovation in the functioning of a work group.  These new patterns include across-the-system coherence, demonstrating a naturally occurring consensus.

Certainly, self-organization doesn't happen out of thin air, there are requirements and conditions for its emergence.  Four factors have been discovered that can also be applied to cognate processes in the R&D workplace:

1. Self-organization is a re-organization of a system's functioning;

2. This re-organization involves an amplification and incorporation of random events, or                noise, in the system;

3. For random events to have such a profound impact, the system must become unstable;

4. Self-organization needs system boundaries to contain the process.

A closer look at each of these factors can provide guidelines for facilitating self-organizing activities in the workplace.

Self-organization as Re-organization

The process of self-organization is a re-organization of the system's organizing patterns when they prove inadequate for meeting a challenge.  The new patterns emerge out of the system's own resources.  For example, the hexagonally-shaped convection cells mentioned above represent a reorganization of the liquid to allow for convection currents, a better method than conduction for transferring heat in the liquid when the temperature is too high.

For self-organization to occur, the system must be allowed to reconfigure its operation.  That is, whatever is serving to keep the system bound to its current mode of operation needs to be loosened or interrupted.  In the workplace, this may mean a loosening of managerial control.  Of course, this is what all the current talk about employee empowerment is supposed to be about.  A
valid management concern in this regard is how to make sure the self-organizing activities arenít diverging from the organization's goals.  However, by noticing spontaneous activities that are directed toward organizational objectives, and encouraging these activities, management can "bias" the process of self-organization in a direction consonant with the organizational goals.

Amplifying Organizational Noise

Self-organizing processes amplify and incorporate random events into a new way of being organized.  These random events donít have to be generated, they already exist in the system.  An analogy is a calm lake.  On a windless day, the lake can appear perfectly still, a mirror of sky and clouds.  Yet, even in the midst of this calm appearance, a probe under the lake's surface would reveal a multitude of tiny, random currents.

These random happenings are the system's noise or anything that departs from normal and predictable modes of functioning.  In a work group or organization, examples of organizational noise could include:

* differences between the way a machine should operate and the way it actually does;

* variations in the parameters of a production process;

* fluctuations in attendance of employees not just at work but at meetings;

* a spontaneous filling-in for an absent worker;

* people who remain after work playing around with a new computer program;

* illnesses and personal crises;

* sudden shifts in order rates or customer complaints;

* trying out new methods after attending a seminar.

System noise has a negligible effect when the system is able to dampen, eliminate, or compensate for it.  However, self-organization involves processes that, rather than minimizing noise, exacerbate it.  This aspect of self-organization corresponds to what has long been known about creativity, i.e., the need for unpredictable shifts away from normal modes of functioning.   This is also similar to the role serendipitous "accidents" play in many scientific discoveries.  A well-known example is how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.  Certain of his cultures were not growing bacteria the way he intended.  He didn't just shrug-off this "noise" in his research, but, instead, inquired further.  He eventually traced this "noise" to pieces of mold that had fallen from a shelf above the cultures, i.e., the penicillin mold, a vigorous enemy of the bacteria he was researching.

Similarly, to facilitate self-organizing processes in the workplace, there must be attention to organizational noise.  One could draw "noise maps" indicating various departures from the norm, what they may be saying about the system's operation, and even how they could be amplified and utilized. For example, putting that group of employees who stay after work playing around with the new program into a project to find new uses for the software.

Generating Instability

Random events or noise can only have creative efficacy when a system is in the right condition, what is technically termed instability.  This is equivalent to the loosening-up, interruption, or removal of those constraints that are maintaining stability.  In a work unit, such an equilibrium-seeking mechanism may consist of: micromanagement of how tasks are to be accomplished; isolation of the work group from its internal and external environments; corporate culture attitudes expressed in such self-fulfilling messages as "don't rock the boat," "cover your behind," "we've tried that before, it just doesn't work here," and the entire plethora of risk-avoidant behavior.

The term "instability" is a bit scary, bringing to mind the image of things wobbling out of control, exploding etc.  But it needn't mean this.  On the contrary, in an organization or work group typified by constantly shifting priorities and tumultuous work schedules, instability would actually be just the opposite:  less tumult and less ground-shifting beneath you.  Itís precisely in the unstable condition, that a system has the possibility for self-organizing into new structures and patterns as it notices, responds to, amplifies, and incorporates noisy elements.

Organizational Boundaries

What keeps noise and instability from leading to total organizational disintegration is the requirement of firm, but permeable organizational boundaries.  That is, the process of self-organization is contained within some kind crucible which channels the noise and instability into a creative response to the challenges facing the system.  This containment keeps the process from "leaking-out" or "exploding."  In this sense, self-organization is "constrained instability."

In the workplace, these boundaries are firmed-up via a process of negotiation among employees and management.  Rather than imposed organizational structures, the new self-organizing structures emerge out of the group facing a challenge and reorganizing itself in the best way to meet that challenge.  This is a process of negotiating a "safe place" where experiments in functioning can be tried-out and where unpredictable outcomes are not shunned, but expected.  This is akin to "biasing" the process of self-organization into a constructive direction.

On the other hand, research into self-organization demonstrates that such organizational boundaries must be permeable in the sense that work groups need to be in vital contact with other work units inside and outside the organization.  That is, they need to be what has been termed in the management literature as "close" to customers and suppliers.  Self-organization thrives in an atmosphere of exchange between a system and its internal and external environments.

By appreciating the power of instability and self-organization, youíll stimulate a creative and innovative environment.  However, if you fear instability and self-organization, opportunities to succeed will be severely limited as technical knowledge and the marketplace rapidly changes.

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