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Self-Organization and the Not Working

In an environment of thinkers, raising the question “Why not?” automatically proposes an investigation of whether expected boundaries still actually exist, and if they do, whether they need to.

Today, if asked, we would say that “the economy” is, at best, unreliable. At all times, it is helping some people far more than others; but at this moment we’re forced to confront its fundamental and chronic weakness — insufficient safeguards against risk. What’s worse, in its current form, it actually prefers things that way.

We The People expect the economy to serve us.

But there are exceptional times when, in its current form, it cannot. At the moment of this writing, 3 million people in the U.S. suddenly don’t know if, when, where, or for how long, they will be “going back to work”.

And meanwhile, we are all too familiar with a past that has this steady feature: at any given time, enormous numbers of skilled people are available and not working.

In the future of work, the economy must not be built in a way that actually relies on excluding the potential value of those not currently working.

I. Going Unused, “on Purpose”

We imagine the Not Working on a spectrum, with one end featuring the dis-advantaged unemployable and the other end featuring hypertalented insiders taking a break.

Somewhere in between those extremes are many other kinds of people with inherent value including the injured or disabled, the skilled retired, the suddenly idled self-employed, and brilliant students.

That much human “resource” is in so much increased peril of being “professionally” sidelined indefinitely by the disruption of the current pandemic.

And it is reasonable to expect other kinds of disruptions as well in the foreseable future.

What does it all mean?

II. The Who Cares Test

One answer is that it means whatever we let it mean.

Cutting to the chase, the main reason people are deemed “unemployed” — as opposed to being deemed “not working” — is that someone other than those people has the money needed to pay for things: things like the recruiting, arranging, support and use of people, processes, tools and information. But it is not difficult for us to figure out what an organization should look like. The lack of money among the Not Working is not because organizing is too difficult.

Instead, money materializes when there is a known demand for a declared purpose having a high-enough priority for a funder.

III. Theory Y and Theory… Z

For the moment, let’s just stipulate that funding exists, long enough to talk about the large population of the Not Working.

In theory, there is far more than enough “resource” in that population to create an abundance of new organizations worth funding. But how?

Using a neutral reference, here is the Wikipedia definition of one way that, without regard to funding, creation can occur:

Self-organization, also called spontaneous order, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process can be spontaneous when sufficient energy is available, not needing control by any external agent.

Reading that description carefully, there are three anchor words that jump into the foreground of examination.

System — being careful, we see that the description presupposes that the outcome being referred to is something that functions or operates, systemically. Organization is Order, and Order is System.

Energy — also, the description presupposes that there is a catalyst and a threshold that together are the trigger for a system to form.

Local — finally, the description says that the “overall” system emerges from some aggregation of naturally separate interactions, of parts.

What the description does not say is how to identify a part; nor, how parts collectively adopt systemic relationships among themselves; nor, where the purposefulness of the system originates or appears as a reference-in-common.

Wikipedia also offers this definition:

Business incubator, a company that helps new and startup companies to develop by providing services such as management training or office space

In other words, some entity that is already organized helps to promote additional other organizations by supplying two types of assets aside from money: knowledge and facilities.

And by the way, if that sounds a lot like a school, that’s because it’s what schools are built to provide. And if we are looking for the “process” that creates the systems we call “order” and “organization”, it makes sense to hold up the teaching/learning process as a catalyst with a purpose — a trigger with a target.

We have a global market for consuming the human population as a resource, and it is mainly dedicated to the creation of profit and the maintenance of an infrastructure for that.

But what we don’t see is the usual market having a primary goal or even a #2 or #3 priority of re-generating or inventing new organizations from most of the Not Working.

Given that, one of the most important things we could do as improvement is to stop saying “unemployed” as if it meant “everyone is employed UN-less… they aren’t” — because being employed is not, in fact, a default state.

And another thing is to reduce the dependency on existing, self-restricting, for-profit organizations. Why not shift the default priority to new, open, sustainable organizations? And how should they form?

The requirement for the future is for that “energy” to be present where, to date, it has not been.

IV. Show me the… money?

Self-organization does not happen without something setting it into motion.

As a vivid contrast to “job hunting” there should be an online environment that by design facilitates the formation of groups that then have opportunities and prospects comparable to those of traditional companies-that-hire.

The notable prerequisite for that envionment would be having an established operational platform to leverage. What is it?

We are of course thoroughly familiar with the ease and convenience of social and professional networking, but if they’re so great, why don’t those avenues translate much more frequently, and much more quickly, for most people using them, into production organizations?

A second prerequisite factor, as already noted, is the burden of underwriting expected operating expense. We have open sourcing and crowd sourcing as well-established examples of working around that barrier. However, in those cases it is fair to recognize the worker’s participation as being self-funded, and that may not be a viable option for many of the Not Working who are both interested and available despite being marginalized by typical third-party hiring practices.

To create an environment that is readily serviceable as a default option for the Not Working to go-back-to-market, there needs to be a blueprint of an ecosystem that (a.) converts invested time (participation) into distributable capital (financial or political), and (b.) promotes orchestration within expressed ranges of quality and tolerance, per purpose.

With a new abundance of the availability of support in the form of knowledge and facilities, “self-organization” may be far less important an idea than virtual-organization. Likewise, organic formation may be more relevant than synthetic formation.

V. Back to Work: A Paradox

As of this writing, we have a global health crisis that is triggering a massive redistribution of human resources. The conventional assumption is that the redistribution will be controlled by existing companies to align with their objectives. Yet no single day goes by without enormous effort being poured into business discussions about alternative management structures, collaborations, and transformation — much of which is in flux if even started.

What actually doesn’t make sense, then, is to assume that the greatest or most important potential value from harvesting the world of the Not Working is necessarily in the hands of already existing paid “captive” managers.

That is, the universal paradigm of systemically and exhaustively focusing on “top job candidates” may be necessary for what most conventional businesses need today but it is already insufficient for serving the need and opportunity of society.

This essay does not claim to know, but recruiting for closed systems may not be nearly as relevant in the near future as incubating for open systems.

The fundamental difference in an ecosystem for incubation is the way that it provides opportunity to potential individual contributors.

VI. Start Me Up

Because of that, it is also simply basic to identify how individual contributors engage each other. This means being able to look into the world of the Not Working and see what other “virtual” organizations (like networks, but different) already exist there that would be usable, compatible, and progressive in promoting people towards opportunity.

We know that there are at least six kinds of virtual organization to be found — which are all capable of being effective as voluntary organizations. Their terms of engagement are sufficient, whereas their sustainability is a different question.

These definitions of cases, drawn from numerous online dictionaries, are selected and/or simplified to distinguish them from each other.

Community — the most generic discrete entity created by aggregated self-identification (intrinsic commonality).

Cohort — a group of people “banded” together by a uniform distinguishing criterion (extrinsic commonality).

Collective — the aggregation of people’s individual efforts, sometimes in the same service but which does not require having a common goal or common effort.

Collaborative — people working together (often with a common goal) to build one thing.

Cooperative — an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned enterprise

Consortium — a voluntary but controlled association of multiple independent organizations for a purpose.

But when are their differences important? As an ongoing exercize, we can try to compile the most typical reasons for choosing one form instead of another. And, in each case we would want to know how they relate to possible incubation as a provider or as a client. As seen below, the point is not that is a single right set of answers, but that there is a way to systematically explore.

Challenge: How can these be unified in a shared operational platform?

VII. Billable Hours

A seen above, the conglomerate we recognize as the Not Working already has numerous ways to voluntarily organize itself. They are each “parts” in an ecosystem, but we don’t usually see them as a powerful unified alternative to reliance on conventional employment practices.

How can those organizations be modeled for interaction, with routinely higher discovery, access, and recognition that enjoys sponsorship and support? If they were somehow unified, how might that correspond to an approach of sponsored continuous incubation that is very widely inclusive, engaging, and confidently self-sustaining?

Organizations generally arise to act on one or more of three things that provoke sponsorship:

  • Mission (concept)
  • Need (problem)
  • Product (resource)

Taking those as objectives, the next step is to identify how to realize them through sourcing that is affordable by the contributors.

Loosely modeled: “affordability” comes from compensation; compensation is benefit; and benefit is relevant impact. In effect, impact makes participation affordable. But that is not just a generic syllogism… Sponsors and participants attract each other in shared concerns, and there are numerous specific types of value that correspond with motivation to begin or continue participation.

Actual participation is functional. Activity that translates inclusion into beneficial participation is already a fundamental need among the Not Working, and it has numerous “organizational” ways to establish persistence in access to support. Historical non-military examples include…

  • A Campaign across communities
  • A Community across localities
  • A Union within a community and across communities
  • A Guild and or a Club within a union and a locality

In those well-known examples, fund-raising and/or “dues” are the most commonly recognized vehicles of economic self-support: they are member-driven. Consequently, we look at “self-organization” at least partly in that light. And we know that it is necessary — but again not really sufficient.

What would be sufficient is this: some assured minimum degree of relevant impact for participating.

VIII. Knowledge is power

Today the most familiar examples of trading participation for received beneficial impact are loan forgiveness, tax deductions, and grants.

For example, teachers carrying student loans get payment relief or exemptions. Charitable donations trigger tax refunds. Grants subsidize research or construction meeting special requirements.

Those examples share a common feature of being especially hospitable to people who were inclined to do the work anyway, whether compensated or not.

But pointing more directly at the underlying enabler, those activities happen because the contributor already has the ability to contribute.

If abilities themselves were being continually cultivated as an asset to be held and then contributed by the individual, then more participants could take up more opportunities attractive to sponsors of mission pursuit, problem solving, and product development and delivery.

The superficial answer to generating the ecosystem, then, is free training. That starts the cycle of converting participation into mutual benefit for contributors and sponsors.

The incubator model obtains and supplies training to the Not Working, through one or more types of organization in the population of the Not Working. This puts most people in that population on a starting line that separates being “not hired” from “not producing”, and points towards productivity without the legacy restraints on hiring. Producers benefit and their participation is gradually channeled into realizing the goals of the sponsor.

IX. Flipping the Script

In our current circumstances, there is a deep disconnect between the commercial market’s ability to produce things, versus its ability to prevent crises that become overtly social and personal.

Arond that market, the normal mechanisms for Work Security are primarily designed to fill gaps between jobs (insurance) or extend the span of compensation beyond the job activity itself (pensions). We don’t even usually think of them as “work” security except in cases where they allow the individual to affordably do preferred work or alternative work “outside” of the normal job or “business as usual”.

The future of work has a dependency on support mechanisms that are institutionally effective, for a far greater percentage of the Not Working population, far more frequently and quickly, as a baseline instead of as a risk management tool.

Some architecture of a social responsibility ecosystem should underpin a pervasive operational culture that is not a safety net but instead is a primary driver of occupational opportunity.

X. The Common Good

What we are looking for is a mechanism that facilitates a break-even return on investing in the continual creation of new purpose-driven organizations. Why? Because organizations are the hosts of opportunities.

Now we ask four big basic questions.

  1. Is that what the education system now promotes?

2. Is philanthropy sustainable under current wealth-building constraints and risks?

3. Does the law generally obligate each new commercial enterprise to a “society-first” basis of incorporation and governance?

4. And why are individuals thought to be a “basic unit of measure” in the economy, instead of deliverable opportunities being the basic unit of measure?

It must be said that if conventional companies have hoarded the lion’s share of “expertise”, and are now compelled to transform themselves as organizations, then they should be in a position to show entire populations how to do it, not just do it for themselves.

Alternatively, if conventional companies routinely exclude or ignore a huge supply of experience, skills and knowledge, then not only should we not presume that those companies have or deserve exclusive privilege to lead the way — rather, we as a society should require that there be a robust alternative to them in effect at all times for everyone.

Can it be done?

It cannot be ignored, despite any other considerations, that the largest publically-funded potential incubator in our society is the US Armed Forces. And immediately that also causes the notion of the Peace Corp to resurface. Likewise, the WPA is a precedent. Those examples make it clear that Need gets us to hurdle many presumed barriers to organization, especially when society itself defines need.

We don’t think of those individual precedents as “economies”, but strictly speaking, their respective ecosystems are. And they have a profound feature in common: the value of an economy to most individuals is not a reliable significant “positive” if that economy can be built only by excluding the potential value of what we see today as the “ Not Working”. Now and in the coming six months, it is clear that there is sufficient need again for something new.



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Malcolm Ryder

Malcolm Ryder


Malcolm is a strategist, solution developer and knowledge management professional in both profit and non-profit companies across business, IT and the arts.