Structuring for Emergence

September 23, 2009 · · Posted by Jordan Frank

Enterprise 2.0 Social Software is appealing for many reasons, but a core value is the facilitation of emergence. Many in our community may quibble with McAfee's definition of Enterprise 2.0 but I think all will agree that the need to support emergence is a key trait. However, an emergent discussion shines a light on the interacting role of structure and emergence.

Bas Reus started the discussion with Self Organization Defined which gathered 42 comments. He continued with our interview, and a really nice interview inspired write up on Coordinated Chaos. Paula Thornton continued with E2.0: Unleashing the Potential where she says structure should be "Minimized, not Eliminated." In comparison to a lava lamp, Thornton says "Emergence does not evolve from nothing -- it requires structure."

In fact, structure lays the stage for the emergent outcomes - and can lead to very different consequences. The Emergence page in Wikipedia talks about how emergent order relies on the interaction rather than co-existence of the parts that come together in a system. In Thornton's lava lamp example, its the interaction of goop and liquid in a closed system of a certain shape and temperature that make the emergent outcome effective in its goal of being delightful to the eye.

Similarly, the Emergence page in Wikipedia, uses the example of ripple patterns in a sand dune. Sand and wind alone do not create the ripples. There are wider forces including the overall weather patterns and the shape of the underlying earth that leave this dune with a beautiful, emergent, pattern rather than a pile of sand.


Emergence is especially appealing to people who've come from rigid software systems which demand that work flows go through a prescribed process. It makes people work through a prescribed flow rather than work in the flow of content and dialog.

As one concrete example, I just got off the phone with a Fortune 100 customer who has happily made the transition from a document approval process done in a workflow system, to an approach where documents for approval are posted for anyone to comment and then considered approved when enough of the right people have weighed in. Their comments act as a digital signature and compliance goals (in their context) are met. This is a simple, emergent process, that frees the group from having to constantly fine tune the rules of a rigid workflow system.

In a project management case, Glen Alleman, the blogger at Herding Cats, just posted PM 1.0, PM 2.0, How About Just Project Management where he argues that "irrational emergences has little chance of succeeding, no matter the current buzz word tool or process." It's not adequate to drop a project team in a Wiki, there are certain basic artifacts and structures that will point the emergent discussions and collaborative content development in a direction that results in emergent order rather than chaos.

To enable a collaborative culture, all arrows seem to point to a conclusion that Control Doesnt Scale, but that you have to balance best practices and starting structures to achieve the most fluid, most intuitive outcomes that facilitate collaboration rather than confuse it with starting structures (or lack thereof) that misalign the natural processes that are used to work in the flow of communication and collaborative content development.

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