Emergence and self-organization

Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few (powerful) people that others blindly implement. Instead, what happens is the consequence of the active choices and participation of all involved. What emerges does not follow exactly a plan or a design. It is about the hard to understand process of self-organization.

We still don’t quite get what emergence and self-organization mean. This is because we think that the unit of activity is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of others. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do. But connected people can never simply do what they like.

Cooperating individuals are not, and cannot be independent. People are interdependent. Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. What happens, happens always in interaction and as a result of that interaction.

From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes explicitly emerge in a way that is never just planned or determined by leaders, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”. You can’t know beforehand who is going to do what. You can’t plan it.

What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning, or management as pointless, but means that the future always contains surprises that the we cannot control. The future cannot be understood by looking at the plans or goals.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization really means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.” No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction for others.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts, but an emergent pattern that is constantly formed in those local interactions. It is a movement in time that cannot be understood just by looking at the parts. The age of reductionism as a sense-making mechanism is over.

What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that organizational sustainability requires the same kind of learning that these software developers already practice: “All work and learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow and respond to. Doing and learning mean the same thing.”

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work and learning is not the independent individual, but interaction between interdependent people.