Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Personalities in networks

I posted a tweet on this today and June suggested I elaborate, so here are some seminal ideas on 5 basic personalities that show up and engage in social networks.

People who are always introducing (adding) new people, new ideas, new questions, and new assets to the network

People who are always looking to take something (subtracting) from the network - they are the consumers, stealers, and energy-drainers in the network

People who are always aligning people in opposition to others in the network; they keep the network divided into us-them divisions based on either-or thinking

People who create rhizomic possibilities that can keep multiplying, virally, by virtue of their replicability and value to the network

People who create new fusions of possibilities, transcendent and transformational ways for the network to become more inventive and adaptive. These are the designers, architects, poets, and crafts people in the network who provide vision and inspiration to adders and multipliers.

Obviously, rich networks grow adders, multipliers, and integrators.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

You may find yourself living in a large network, and you may ask yourself... Well, how did I get here?

Inspired by my favorite Talking Heads song: "Once in a Lifetime".

We often wonder "how did I get here?" when we look around and reflect on our personal networks. Where did all these connections come from? Did I do all this? Who helped weave my network? What can I do with these connections? Where can I add more?

I will go through key growth stages of a network that evolved this past decade. Many of the connections have already resulted in creative collaborations. Other connections are just bearing fruit now. Networks are like that -- a new connection does not always bear instant fruit, sometimes the growing season for some links is very long. Yet at the end, the fact that the link is already established, an opportunity is spotted and acted upon using the resources that the link provides.

Many years ago the network looked like this. Two people are connected if they interact with each other as friends and/or colleagues. ONet represents a now defunct on-line group: The Omidyar Network. This was a gathering place to help people discover how they can make a difference.

People on ONet got to know each other from their on-line activity and Jerry introduced Tom to Valdis -- he closed the triangle amongst himself, Tom and Valdis.

Next, Tom introduced Jean to Valdis at a seminar he organized in Boston. Soon after that, Steve reached out to June after doing a web search on "network weaving."

In the next phase, June introduced Steve to Valdis to work on network mapping, and Valdis introduced June to Tom to speak at his next seminar in Europe. Notice as people start "closing triangles" via introductions, the original meeting place for a portion of the group -- ONet -- starts getting pushed to the periphery.

Next, Valdis introduces June to Jean to share similar interests and goals, and after working with Valdis on network maps Steve introduces Daniel, who is also interested in network mapping, to Valdis.

Finally, Jean meets Jerry at another event and the network as it stands today is now in place.

When we make introductions, and close triangles, we are not doing it to merely create new connections. Network weavers usually have a goal in mind when connecting two new people -- a project, a mentorship, a future collaboration. The links between Daniel, Jean, and Valdis were in place several years ago but only this year did they all collaborate around a common project. Jean and Valdis were working on thrivable networks and Daniel was organizing a conference around building networks to help inner-city kids -- all three were going to be in Chicago the same week. After a few emails it was agreed, Jean and Valdis would do a workshop on building thrivable networks @ Daniel's Tutor/Mentor Conference.

So, networks are built in many ways. First, by being in the same physical or virtual space, and second by active network weavers who make strategic introductions for the benefit of those they connect and for the benefit of the entire network. Networks are also activated in many ways. Sometimes by the initial introduction and connection to an immediate need, and other times, existing links need a little nudge to activate -- like an obvious opportunity. Our themes in the workshop will be:

Know the Net - map the existing connections of your community/ecosystem
Knit the Net - weave and support new connections, build a thriving network
Nudge the Net - activate the network toward self-organization and action

Register here online and join us in Chicago on November 20th!

How did we get here?
Letting the days go by...
Many years of knowing, knitting and nudging.
Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Power of Network Weaving

One of the most interesting developments in the social sciences is the new science of social networks. This is the growing body of knowledge and practice about how organizations, communities, regions, industries, markets and geopolitics behave as networks of collaboration, learning, and influence.

One of the principles in social network science is that when people are better connected, they are more individually and collectively productive, cohesive, and resilient.

From a social network perspective, every social problem is a symptom of fragmentation in networks. Everything we call a problem today is a manifestation of unengaged citizens, siloed institutions, divisive politics, and fragmented industries. Few new possibilities can occur in a world of disconnections. When connections thrive, new possibilities thrive.

Where people are thriving in the world today, their social networks are the fabric of their thrivancy. When people are better connected in social networks, they become more of a community.

Social network sciences suggest that the most significant accelerator of network connections is the presence of network weavers in networks.

Network weavers are people who intentionally and informally - and often serendipitously - weave new and richer connections between and among people, groups, and entities in networks. They also weave new and richer connections between among networks.

This is not a new role; it is a role that has been around since the beginning of social introductions. Network weavers do three things.

1. They constantly learn about the assets and opportunities in the network. This includes the tangible and intangible, shared and isolated, well-engaged and unengaged talents, resources, funds, space, expertise, and knowledge available within the network.

2. They constantly learn about the dreams of people in the network. These are the passions inspiring what people are striving to create and pursue.

3. They constantly introduce and connect people with complementary dreams and assets.

Anyone can be a network weaver. It requires no specialized position, permission, personality type, or preparation. Network weaving only requires five things: intention, time, curiosity, the ability to make quality introductions, and a good connection with those they’re connecting.

Network weaving can happen in any media and geography - in person, online, by phone or text. It can be strategically planned or spontaneously improvised. It can take minutes or months.

A quality introduction is one where the people introduced are immediately inspired to get to know one another more, with a new sense of learning, collaboration, transaction, or alliance possibilities.

The power of network weaving is how it invites a culture of generosity that is the basis for all thriving networks.

The more network weaving happens in a network, the more people are connected in new ways. When people are better connected, they dream with greater courage, they share their assets with greater generosity, and they innovate with greater resourcefulness.

The divide between knowledge and asset haves and have-nots shrinks, creating a culture of trust and engagement rather than isolation and entitlement. People with common dreams scale their dreams thanks to wider and richer collaborations. People become more transparent and as a result, share a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the whole.

Through network weaving, we become able to create a common future different from the past.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fireside Chat: Ed Morrison & Valdis Krebs

First of a series of chats on leading edge ideas in regional economic development with Ed Morrison and Valdis Krebs.

We look at how to find hidden opportunities in business lists. Valdis uses social network analysis and some simple data mining to derive the network of collaboration opportunities below from the list of 350 NE Ohio advanced energy companies above. How did he do it? Watch and listen to this 5 minute Screenr screencast!

Next week's chat will focus on Ed's work around ditching organizational charts.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The power of dreams and small acts

These are views from the rural economic development Summit June and I (Jack) facilitated last Friday. It was a great group and a fabulous time of learning and transformation. People did a great job of dreaming and translating dreams into small acts - cultural breakthroughs we expect to hear long term impacts from.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Weaving a Job Network

Recently Valdis appeared on WCPN - 90.3 FM, the Cleveland NPR radio station, on "The Sound of Ideas" with Dan Moulthrop. The program was about searching for a job when you are over 50 years old. Listen to the MP3 here [I am in the last 15 minutes]. Here are more details to the network weaving process that the limited on-air time did not allow me to share.

When is the best time to plant a tree?
20 years ago.

When is the next best time to plant a tree?

Chinese Proverb

What is true for trees, is true for networks -- build your network before you need it!

It is best to have been building and expanding your strategic personal network for all of your professional life. Unfortunately, most people don't come to that realization until they are let go from their current job.

Most people have small, dense networks composed mostly of their immediate on-the-job colleagues, friends and family. These networks are the first resource of the newly furloughed employee. Asking around, the job-seeker finds that immediate contacts often do not have much more job information than the job searcher has -- they are all in the same network neighborhood where everyone knows what everyone else knows at about the same time.

Once the job seeker exhausts the obvious job openings that s/he and their immediate contacts are aware of, they become stuck. What to do next? The common advice is send out or post resumes on-line, attend job fairs and start "networking". The first two suggestions get the job seeker onto the overcrowded freeway to the HR office. In today's recession, this route is a clogged artery with little or no movement -- time to get out of this traffic jam and try an alternate path.

The next suggestion -- "networking" -- sounds good, but is often approached wrong. Networking is commonly defined as quickly connecting with many people -- focus on quantity over quality -- sometimes mockingly called schmoozing. Building strategic connections is much different than just "networking" -- you build trusted relationships that bring you information and access that you currently don't have in your small circle of friends and colleagues. Quality trusted ties are like the trees planted many years ago. Quality trusted ties develop when people work on something together -- they don't develop over a handshake at a conference, a quick conversation over coffee or a speed interview at a job fair.

Networking may get you many new business cards, but are these people willing and able to introduce you to the hiring manager [the route around the clogged freeway]? If I just met you at a conference, or you called me out of the blue "to network", am I going to risk my professional reputation to introduce you to my boss or trusted colleague? Probably not. Yet, if you are introduced to me by a trusted friend, colleague or peer then I will listen and we will both benefit. Better yet, if we work on a volunteer project together, I see you "in action" and we bond -- I feel confident in recommending you.

Once you exhaust your inner circle of people who can make introductions, what do you do? Two things: 1) re-activate trusted ties from the past that are now dormant and 2) build new trusted ties via volunteering and part-time work.

Everyone has dormant connections that can be re-activated. Many people are now getting on Facebook and LinkedIn and re-connecting with former colleagues and college chums. Do so, but be careful. Do not re-connect with a transaction in your back pocket -- "Hi, nice to to hear from you again, do you know of any jobs?" I have a former colleague who re-connects with me every 5-7 years -- but he does so only when he is in the job market! He expects a connection, but is not eager to offer one of his own. Needless to say, he does not get far. Once you re-connect with one or two trusted ties ask them if they have remained in contact with others from your old social circle. You want to be expanding/re-activating your current network out 1 and 2 steps -- your contacts and hopefully their contacts. This will help you reach people with information about jobs you have not heard of yet.

A friend of mine, a job-seeking HR executive in Chicago, has done an amazing job of building her strategic network in the last year. She has hundreds of new connections with many of them being ties she built in prolonged interactions. She has volunteered on several projects in her field and has also joined several advisory boards. She helped organize several local HR conferences and meetings for the non-profit she works with and therefore has face-to-face work experience with a new cadre of colleagues. They have seen her in action, they like her work, her energy, they trust her, they even give out their personal cell phone numbers to be references for her! Like a tree establishing a root system, it has taken her a while to grow this strategic network, but it is now vibrant and ready to provide her with many opportunities.

In addition to job offers and business opportunities, a wide strategic network also provides other benefits. Health and happiness! When I talked to my HR colleague in Chicago this week, she did not come across as a person that had been out of work for a while. She was very upbeat and full of energy -- which comes across great in an interview! She was very positive because her network was growing and bringing results. She was meeting new people, sharpening her skills and learning new behaviors -- she was very positive about her future. More and more research is pointing to the health benefits of building social networks. Employers like to hire positive, high energy people.

Out of work? Form new ties -- not casual connections, but collaborative caring connections. They will bring you a variety of rewards. Also, when you start your new job, do not stop your network building. Keep expanding your network, make new connections in new places. Keep growing that tree, you planted, with wide-reaching branches.

"Only connect!
Live in fragments no longer.

Howard's End
E. M. Forster

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Emergence Part 2

Here is part 2:

Emergence - Part 1

key to understanding self-organizing is the concept of emergence. Here is a nice video (via Lisa Kimball) in two parts.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Can we see self-organizing in our world?

I'm really finding BFI Book Group quite delightful. First, it's a good use of Ning, a free customizable social networking site, as a discussion forum. Might want to check it out to see how it works.

In addition, the quality of the discussion of The Invention of Air (by Steven B Johnson) is great. There's a new thread on Systems Thinking and Change that is fascinating. Saul Kaplan, who organized the Book Group, says level innovation is exactly what it is going to take to tackle the really important issues of our time including health care, education, and climate change.

But to get systems level innovation we need theory. Steven Johnson points out

...what we don't have is a convincing theory about the system that connects all these local innovations, that causes them to self-organize into something so momentous.

I think the theory is there, in the science of self-organizing systems and complexity. But virtually all of that literature describes everything but human social self-organizing systems: ecosystems, immune systems, termite colonies, etc.

Somehow we've created a culture and social system where the self-organizing capacity that termites illustrate so effectively has been damped way down. Our only path back to this birthright is to become highly self-aware of our natural capacity to self-organize.

We have to learn to see the self-organizing that exists in our lives before this broader theory can become social theory. As Steven Johnson points out in his excellent video, self-organizing is local, and we need to practice self-organizing in a way that enables us to build our self-organizing capacities: we need to gain new skills in listening and in working together and learn to reach out to those who are different from us in every way possible. As we do this, I think we will be shocked at the depth of creativity that is unleashed.

But as Johnson queries, how does all this little stuff become the stuff of transformation? I believe the magic of emergence can be assisted through networking structures (whether coffee houses or social media) that enable us to share deeply, and through processes that enable innovations to be woven together, to scale and make a difference.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Whither the Coffee House?

Saul Kaplan has set up an online book club on innovation. The first book we are reading and discussing is Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air," which describes the coffee house culture of England and the U.S. in the late 1700's. Here are some of my thoughts about these places that were so crucial to innovation in that era.

Think about the coffee house - people flowing in and out with the frequent running into others and the chance to exchange and cross-fertilize one's latest spontaneous thinking, places for twosies to sit down and move the sparks that have been created into action, and groups coalescing around trending topics so larger stuff can emerge.

But the impact of traditional coffee house innovation is limited by class and geography. Little headway was made on issues such as poverty because no poor people ever made it in the door (except as unseen help). Social media is just now providing examples of how the web can overcome some of the coffee house limitations. One of the delights of Twitter is that you can create a coffee house peopled by quite diverse individuals from all over the world (I follow people from many countries and political persuasions) and, because you are overhearing all their comments and conversations, you can often find some opportunity to strike up a conversation and start to build a relationship with people you would never run into in this way in your ordinary life.

The difficulty, though, is reconceptualizing the physical place - a coffee house - as a set of innovation flows. Once you have a great provocative conversation with one or two people on Twitter, how and where do you move it so the energy and innovation continues to flow into action? I've now had a number of instances where the Twitter banter flowed into Skype calls/chats/document exchanges and then into face-to-face meetings or directly into some collaborative arrangement. The next missing piece is more support for small collaborations online. How do we keep track of all the small projects and what we are supposed to do for each?s

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Network Leap

The biggest network divide -- the one I think makes philanthropy so much less effective than it could be -- is the divide between so-called DONORS and BENEFICIARIES. I want to suggest that these terms are a little whacky.

I want to suggest that people who give money and people who have projects that need money need to rethink of themselves as a PEER NETWORK -- and that this small (but oh so difficult) step would instantly start a process of transformation.

First of all, people are doing fabulous, creative stuff out in communities. They are experimenting, working unbelievably hard, scrambling for resources to keep going. Philanthropists could learn so much from them about what works, what makes a difference - but how do they get a true picture of what is going on, because non-profits feel they have to make themselves look perfect to get money and so hide some of the most important information -- their mistakes!? How can positive community energy be identified and supported -- and be allowed to be imperfect, but held accountable for learning and making breakthroughs? What might happen if philanthropists stopped funding themes and started funding networks of high-energy groups that have or want to learn deep processes of innovation, collaboration and reflection?

But, by funding organizations rather than networks and projects, philanthropists take away the incentive to work with others, learn from others and get the kind of feedback that helps non-profits see the unproductive ruts they have slipped into.

The Viral Giving Network

An example of a Viral Giving Network was provided in two earlier posts about the Oxfam Savings for ChangeProject and Keys to Transformation and Scale. Women in the Savings for Change Circles spread their successful strategy for collecting savings and then lending to circle members to many other groups of women in their villages, thus increasing the impact of the project more than ten-fold -- at very little additional cost.

Viral Giving always includes training participants so that they can continue to spread the project. In Savings for Change, participants were given the framework of viral spreading ("You can spread this to other women in your village."), tools for spreading the project (a pictograph manual of how to run a savings circle), and basic skills and strategies to spread the project. Think about your projects: Are projects you fund something that can be spread? Or,do your projects have elements that could be spread (for example, the use of social media)? Do you suggest that spreading the project or elements of it are part of the project? Do you provide training in how these can be spread?

Video on Network Weaving

Thanks to the good folks at I-Open, especially Betsey Merkel, I'm sharing a 20 minute video on Network Weaving. This could be the first of a series, a tutorial on Network Weaving concepts and skills.

All I ask is that you provide some feedback: Is this useful? What about the length? What specific aspects of Network Weaving would you like to learn more about?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Transformative Philanthropy Network - the parts

In the next series of posts, I'll use examples to describe the 4 (maybe 5) sub-networks in a truly transformative philanthropy network. I'll offer a graphic that will show each part and then how they all fit together.

Part 1: The Viral Giving Network

Part 2: The Viral Donor Aggregation Network

Part 3: The Direct Donor to Recipient Network

Part 4: The Learning Networks

Part 5: The Engagement Across Divides Networks

You will see as each is described, the words that we use start shifting, opening up new possibilities.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Philanthropic networks

In the 2 previous posts I've been talking about philanthropists as if they were synonymous with foundations. In this post I'd like to deconstruct and reconstruct the notions of who is a philanthropist.

We have been blessed in this country (U.S.A.) to have many many foundations. However, these foundations, as was the case for businesses and government agencies as well, adopted organizational structures that were hierarchical and generally operated in isolation from other organizations. For the last decade, though, many entrepreneurial individuals and businesses have moved to an ecosystem model: they have vast relationships with other businesses of many types and sizes as well as with 'customers,' and they often operate through an ever-changing ensemble of of collaborative projects with others in their ecosystem. New product ideas, for example, are as likely to come from a customer or a microbusiness in another part of the world as from internal staff. Staff are often continually engaging with "non-staff" in a wide range of FTF and online venues. is an example of how philanthropy can operate in this new ecosystem world. The site draws in new philanthropists (who are mostly individuals who have never considered themselves as philanthropists before) mainly through friendship networks, and links people directly to individuals who need loans. It is this direct connection - knowing something about the person to whom you are lending money - that draws so many people in who never donated money to an abstract cause. How could foundations see themselves as builders of networks that create these kinds of direct connections and engage many more people in philanthropic activities? also has set up a structure to support the self-organizing of lender interest groups. More than 3000 teams help build relationships among the new philanthropists, expanding their understanding of and commitment to the larger initiative, thus setting up viral expansion pathways. In addition, offers an internship program that engages individuals in tracking success and further weaving the network.

How could foundations and other more traditionally organized philanthropists see their role as supporting the development of a complex philanthropic ecosystem?

Policy networks

How can philanthropy assist in the formation of policy networks? I think the biggest mistake foundations make is that they often convene non-profits interested in a particular policy area and have them talk (often for months or even years), struggling to consense on a specific policy agenda which they then push forward as a group. For many intractable problems, though, this approach is premature, and often doesn't result in long term system change.

Why not start with the most basic system change and create a different set of relationships among all of those who care about some major problem or possibility? How can development of a policy agenda engage policy makers and policy influentials (Institutes, individuals, and media that people look to to shape discussions in a particular policy arena) from the start? Instead of immediately focusing on policy, could these key policy players become engaged with non-profits around experiments that help everyone learn what effective policy needs to look like for this area?

How could foundations and agencies see their role as creating policy networks that connect non-profits (both locally and with innovators around the world) and help them build long-term relationships with policy makers and policy influentials? Non-profits are all too often isolated from the experience of other non-profits that could inform policy recommendations.Too often they forge ahead with a massive change agenda with little or no experience from which to determine whether what they are suggesting will actually work or whether it has the flexibility needed to match the uniqueness of communities. How could they gain the skills needed for effective network building and collaboration that would support ongoing innovation?

What would policy look like that encourages collaboration and is flexible enough to allow creative adaptation to each community funded? I would love to see policy-mandated funding be based on the Innovation Fund model: the first round of policy sets up seed funds available to many collaborative projects, each made up of small groups of organizations interested in exploring a specific innovative approach through collaborative action. Well facilitated reflection sessions encourage the seed projects to explore what they learned about this policy terrain as a result of their innovative experience. Policy-designated funds are then available for new, larger collaborative projects that are thoroughly tracked to develop the key "patterns of success." Larger scale policy is then developed based on this learning and experience.

Looking forward to hearing about your experience and thoughts!

Providing support for learning/policy communities among "grantees"

My first suggestion to enhance philanthropy is for foundations or philanthropists to be trend and energy seekers. Rather than have lengthy planning/priority sessions, why not have the program staff (and board) call people they respect (and then some random names from the non-profit, grassroots community) and ask them what they think are the most exciting projects, directions, organizations and individuals working in communities? As a result of listening, the foundation will quickly find out where the energy is, so that they can support, enhance and scale that good energy.

The first step in enhancing already emerging energy is to encourage and assist those energy centers to enhance their networks. I remember one very nice foundation that decided, after much internal study, on a focus for their grantmaking. They made a request for proposals from organizations interested in that particular focus area. Then the foundation selected a dozen or so organizations and brought them together to form a "network." Unfortunately, most of these organizations felt they had little in common and the processes the foundation used in their "network" gatherings did little to help the organizations get to know each other so they never identified commonalities. Because of the structure of the proposals (everyone had to lay out a 3-year plan), all of the groups had already decided what they were going to do, so there was little room for collaborative projects to emerge from the "network."

Now, let's look at another scenario. The foundation or investors identify energy centers in the network and ask them to identify their current network and who else they would like to be connected with. The foundation then negotiates a network building initiative with the core of the network (usually 6-10 organizations), providing the core with support to map their network and then learn basic Network Weaving skills so they can expand and enhance their network relationships. A key aspect of this strategy is to use the network weaving "training" as an opportunity to support the formation of a peer Community of Practice/Action/Reflection. Part of the Network Guardian role the foundation plays involves listening to the organizations and facilitating (or paying for facilitators) who watch topics emerge and structure convenings of all sorts (phone, FTF, Ning) (Twosies, small groups) to research and/or organize learning/discussion on these emerging topics. Out of this initial learning action collaborations form (which will usually need some coaching in inter-organizational project management!) and start doing things, usually innovative actions where there is high uncertainty.

So again, the foundation can help the collaboratives process what is happening - in real time as they "rapid prototype" - and make sense of what is happening. Does what they are doing feel like its going in the right direction? What have they been surprised about? What did they notice? What do they need to learn about? Who can they learn that from? For this kind of learning to lead to breakthroughs, the foundation as network guardian will need to make sure the reflection process includes participants and observers as well as the organizational staff.

So that this peer learning network is sustainable, it's important that the initial facilitator train individuals in the network in the skills need to continue learning activities after the initial grant ends. In this way, the facilitators seed the network with new network building and learning capacities that can become positively infectious!

What are your thoughts? Would this approach work? Who has already tried something like this?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Social Network Analysis Workshop

Escape the snowy North and come learn something new in sunny San Diego!

Valdis Krebs will be presenting a 1/2 day workshop on practical applications of social network analysis [SNA] at the upcoming Sunbelt Social Network Conference sponsored by INSNA -- International Network for Social Network Analysis.

This workshop will be on the morning of March 11th at the Bahia Hotel @ Mission Beach in San Diego, California. The Sunbelt conference will run until Sunday, March 15th in the same Hotel.

The hands-on workshop will feature a quick overview of social network analysis as applied to organizations and communities. You will get a chance to use social network analysis software to explore a simple data set. Whether you are a consultant, analyst, manager, activist, student, professor, or journalist you will learn how to apply this useful methodology with clients and customers.

Valdis and Erin Kenneally will have a presentation during the regular conference on Analyzing Networks of Corruption.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Viral Philanthropy Introduction

How can a foundation or charitable endeavor have the greatest impact? I think its through 4 basic strategies:

1. Funding 2-step viral strategies for transformation

2. Providing support for learning/policy communities among "grantees"

3. Creating viral strategies to build an expanding donor community

4. Enabling donor and grantee to engage directly

More on each of these tomorrow!

I'm not sure that any philanthropic effort currently employes all 4, but I'm counting on those of you who have implemented one or more to share your experience with us.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Points of Leverage for Transformation

When we want to understand how small changes can be leveraged into transformation, Donella Meadows has a great list of 12 leverage points she compiled back in the seventies, but which is still so applicable today.

The leverage point I most like is Number 3: The Power of Self-Organization.

The most stunning thing living systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it's called technical advance or social revolution. In systems lingo it's called self-organization.

Self-organization means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list—adding or deleting new physical structure, adding or deleting negative or positive loops or information flows or rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience, the ability to survive change by changing.

The human immune system can develop responses to (some kinds of) insults it has never before encountered. The human brain can take in new information and pop out completely new thoughts.

Self-organization seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous. Economists often model technology as literal manna from heaven—coming from nowhere, costing nothing, increasing the productivity of an economy by some steady percent each year. For centuries people have regarded the spectacular variety of nature with the same awe. Only a divine creator could bring forth such a creation.

In fact the divine creator does not have to produce miracles. He, she, or it just has to write clever rules for self-organization. These rules govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.

Self-organizing computer models demonstrate that delightful, mind-boggling patterns can evolve from simple evolutionary algorithms. (That need not mean that real-world algorithms are simple, only that they can be.) The genetic code that is the basis of all biological evolution contains just four letters, combined into words of three letters each. That code, and the rules for replicating and rearranging it, has spewed out an unimaginable variety of creatures.

Self-organization is basically a matter of evolutionary raw material—a stock of information from which to select possible patterns—and a means for testing them. For biological evolution the raw material is DNA, one source of variety is spontaneous mutation, and the testing mechanism is something like punctuated Darwinian selection. For technology the raw material is the body of understanding science has accumulated. The source of variety is human creativity (whatever that is) and the selection mechanism is whatever the market will reward or whatever governments and foundations will fund or whatever tickles the fancy of crazy inventors.

When you understand the power of self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and scientists are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals, or particular kinds of scientists, would be.

The same could be said of human cultures, which are the store of behavioral repertoires accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of every genetic variation in ground squirrels. I guess that's because one aspect of almost every culture is a belief in the utter superiority of that culture.

Any system, biological, economic, or social, that scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.

The intervention point here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging diversity means losing control. Let a thousand flowers bloom and anything could happen!

Who wants that?

Amazing that she wrote this over 30 years ago!

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?

The Forgotten Building Blocks of Self-Organization

Most of the examples of self-organization that I find on the Internet are either personal or large-scale as in the Belarus flashmob example in a previous post.

The missing level of self-organization that no one is talking about is the small stuff: small group collaborations, especially those that cross organizational boundaries.

Self-Organizing Kickoff

If you haven't read Here Comes Everybody, grab a copy and you will soon understand why everybody is talking about self-organizing these days.

Clay Shirky, the author, is an engaging speaker with a long list of easy-to-digest videos on You Tube that I highly recommend.

One of the stories he tells of the power of self-organization took place in Belarus in 2006. Not allowed to protest by the repressive regime, young people used mobile phones to gather large ice-cream eating flashmobs. As smiling ice cream eaters were dragged off to prison, their plight was broadcast all over the world, weakening the legitimacy of the ruling party.

In a recent talk, Shirky asked "Why aren't people using Internet communications for positive actions or "online barn raisings?"

Ernst-Jan Pfauth, in a blog post on Shirky's talk, points out

Well, the people from small farm communities live in a totally different social environment. Three important factors stimulate them to organize events like a barn raising:

The farmers owe each other a favor;
The small social density causes social control. Everybody is tracking everybody’s action;
The people they know are likely to be around for some years, so it’s worth the investment

Shirky points out that these same conditions don't exist online so we have to design new environments for collaboration.

In upcoming posts, we'll review some of the ways people are starting to organize online and look at the key design elements of self-organizing, whether online or off.

Jean pointed out that some of you are already experimenting, so please let us know what you are doing by responding to this post!