Planet of the apes

If a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters eventually produce Hamlet, surely the users in a networked enterprise can come up with something even better.

That old monkey joke never made sense to me, until I recently realized it is a “”primate”” example of a new way to describe a

self-organizing system. Steven Johnson, co-founder of the groundbreaking (and now sadly defunct) online magazine Feed, goes about it the long way in his latest book, Emergence, but it all comes down to the same thing. Emergence is a study of how low-level agents interact and come up with higher-level behavior. His best example is an explanation of the way cities form: a major business opens up on one street, and related services open up nearby. Then houses, then schools. In most major urban centres, this is not as preconceived as what urban planners would have us think but the spontaneous result of emergence. On a more elementary level, Johnson notes the way ants manage to form complex colonies that sustain themselves for long periods of time. Though there is an ant “”queen”” in these colonies, emergence theorists have discovered these queens have no real authority: they are just the child-bearers.

The emergence theory goes against the notion of top-down hierarchies as the best possible means of development. By observing our neighbours, listening to feedback and looking for patterns, groups can organize and effectively self-regulate themselves, Johnson says. We see this not merely in the way cities grow but in the evolution of video games like Sim City and online communities like Slashdot.org.

Even in the enterprise, a degree of emergence takes place. Users rely on their IT manager for training, but over time cubicle drones learn to watch their neighbour and solve their problems themselves. In some cases, they develop business processes that work better than anything their managers would have set up. This is why we often see so many conflicts in corporations that are out of touch with the actual workflow of their employees. In this case, emergence is perhaps too hidden.

Johnson’s book is intriguing because it tries to explore how far the phenomenon will go in terms of changing the way we work. He paints a picture in which companies become much more communal and organic. In these organizations of decentralized authority, he writes, small units set their own objectives and end up pushing the company forward. “”The role of traditional senior management grows less important in these models,”” he says, “”less concerned with establishing a direction for a company and more involved in encouraging the clusters that generate the best ideas.””

Though perhaps too infatuated with the utopian potential of his subject matter, Johnson is not naive enough to predict a complete culture shift. “”Controlled randomness is a brilliant recipe for city life and ant foraging, but it’s harder to imagine selling shareholders on it as a replacement for the CEO,”” he says. Perhaps that’s because the emergence theory doesn’t take into account the lust for power (in human beings, anyway: Who knows about ants?) and presupposes a level playing field in almost every situation. Leaders often come to the forefront because they have expertise, or have learned ways of organizing systems more quickly than would happen through emergence. That’s not to say all systems should retain a centralized authority. The best leaders try to make those they lead self-reliant, and perhaps give emergence a helping hand.

We are certainly not at the point where we can do away with CIOs and self-govern our own IT departments, but the wave of self-service applications in the enterprise will probably give birth to new forms of employee development. So will users’ ongoing familiarity with PCs and mobile devices. We may never end up with completely emergent companies, but that doesn’t mean we’ll remain as disorderly as a barrel full of monkeys. As with most social theory, there will be a balance. It’s not a “”to be or not to be”” type of question.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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