SWARM-LIKE DYNAMICS AND THEIR USE IN ORGANIZATIONS AND MANAGEMENT
Centre for Systemic Development
University of Western Sydney
SWARM-LIKE DYNAMICS AND THEIR USE IN ORGANIZATIONS AND MANAGEMENT
Introduction: Swarm-like Dynamics The Swarm of Human Thoughts and Feelings Harmonious Resonance Effects of External Perturbations Awareness and Learning Purpose as a Strange Attractor of Agents' Dynamics Incompatibility of Harmonious Resonance in Organizations with Profit-Oriented Attractors Conclusion: Rhythm of Self-Realization References
According to many authors in the field of management, today's globalization, rapid-fire technological innovations, and constant mounting pressure from few elitist, unimaginably reach, banking corporations have pushed the world markets into a state of ceaseless turmoil. "Success amidst such a maelstrom of change" - writes Conner in its book "Leading at the Edge of Chaos", calls for much more than what change-management models have to offer. It calls for emergence of a radically new kind of organizations with highly flexible swarm-like dynamics, nimble enough to adapt instantly to changing market conditions, and piloted by people well versed in the art of riding complexity at the edge of chaos."
The study of the swarm-like dynamics is at the focus of the Artificial Life research program of Langton. He has been the primary motivator behind the development of a simulation package called SWARM - a software package for modelling swarming behaviour of networks of agents capable to act autonomously and to produce higher-level identities, such as the flocking behaviour of birds, the swarming behaviour of bees, the concourse of people, etc. Since 1997 Langton is with the Swarm Corporation aimed to provide expert consulting and modelling capability to businesses and other agencies facing whirling complex dynamics in various aspects of their organizations.
The swarm-like dynamics are at the very core of the dynamics of every organization. This study reveals their use in the practice of management.
Although every organization represents a system with an established order: structure, hierarchy and links with the environment, it is clear that the thoughts and feelings (shaped into ideas, emotions, aspirations, expectations, hopes, dreams, etc.) of people working in organizations can hardly obey any pre-imposed order. Being extremely sensitive to any (even slightest) acts of interfering, they cannot be pushed into a systemic order - they keep constantly swarming - diverging or converging, unfolding or enfolding, forming transient patterns that expand or shrink in a difficult-to-predict rhythm. The space where they 'dance' can be called a mental space - a non-material (transcendental in Kantian term) space that belongs to each and every individual able to think and feel.
"Explicit knowledge is that knowledge that is written down or in a knowledge base. Tacit knowledge is that knowledge that is in the heads of the agents. The greatest knowledge base in the company is the tacit knowledge in the heads of the people that is continuously changing and evolving" (R. Buckman)
People do not like to compare their thoughts and feelings with swarms. We like to believe that what we think and feel: what we conceptualize and saturate with emotions, what we expect and aspire, what we hope and dream gives us identity and power in the world, so we do not want to accept that we are in any way like bees in a swarm, or birds in a flock, or ants in a colony.
"Why is it unpalatable for us to accept that our complex human behaviour may have a simple non-human explanation?" asks A. Battram in an Internet discussion on organizational complexity.
Swarm characterizes with seven unique properties:
These properties endow the swarm with an exceptional ability for survival, which is reinforced by equal participation of any swarm's member. In a swarm of bees, for example, the naturally emerged differentiation between 'drones', 'queens' and 'workers' exists in harmony with the bees' drive towards supporting the swarm's continuity, its ongoing adaptation and fitness - qualities that crucially depend on the contribution of each and every single bee.
- Intensive interactive dynamics
- High level of potentiality for formation of transient dynamic patterns and accomplishment of coherent actions
- Criticality (edge-of-chaos behaviour)
The swarm of thoughts and feelings that emerges and moves in one's mental space has unique capacity for propagation from one individual to individual - a capacity that can significantly increase, if the degree of criticality (degree of 'noise') in an organization reaches a certain level. Beyond this level is the area of the far-from-equilibrium organizational dynamics, which draw the organization towards the edge of chaos.
The conditions of criticality act as a powerful stimulator of people's willingness to share ideas and experience, to respond openly, to learn instantly and even to help each other. Under criticality people can display unparalleled levels of creativity and resourcefulness. Behavioural patterns, which under conditions of order and equilibrium remain hidden or fuzzy, suddenly come to light - clear and transparent.
The 'disclosing' effect of criticality is analogical to an effect known as stochastic resonance in signal transmission and pattern recognition: signals and patterns emerge much clearer, if their transmission is accompanied with a certain level of noise. The noise 'harmoniously' resonates with the hidden or fuzzy boundaries of the transmitted signals and patterns and makes them contrast and easier for identification. In the context of organizational dynamics, we shall refer to this phenomenon as harmonious resonance in organization.
As far as the external complexity of the organizations' environment is saturated with 'noises' of various origin, and their internal complexity is constantly driven towards criticality (a process known as self-organizing criticality in complexity theory), the occurrence of harmonious resonance in organizations is quite probable.
When it happens, the swarming thoughts and feelings in the mental space of each individual spontaneously self-organize into coherent dynamic patterns, that is, patterns common for all the agents interacting in an organization. And suddenly a kind of magic occurs: the agents become able to act in sync and harmony, as if they are at-one - one multi-agent entity, one multi-facet unity, one inseparable whole - a flock of birds flying together with a lightning speed.
Examples of such coherent patterns are:
- emergence of an organizational climate that stimulates agents towards realization of their skills and knowledge, towards learning and strengthening the 'fitness' of the organization and its ability to evolve and grow;
Note: Criticality is only a necessary condition for emergence of harmonious resonance, but not a sufficient one. There are also other factors responsible for the actual happening of this kind of resonance in the organizations. We shall explain this in detail in the chapters that follow.
- emergence of dynamically balanced (harmonious) interrelationships between the values and purposes of the individuals who work in an organization and the values and purposes of the organization as a whole.
The harmonious resonance in organization cannot be imposed - no swarm of thoughts and feelings in the mental space of an individual (with ability to think and feel) can be forced to resonate according to somebody's will. As far as the swarms are extremely sensitive to perturbations, it is the perturbations that can help in 'tuning' the degree of criticality (edge-of-chaos behaviour) in organizations so that to facilitate emergence of harmonious resonance.
The skill for tuning criticality in an organization to a level able to evoke coherent actions towards strengthening organizational fitness is of vital importance when managing organizational change at the edge of chaos.
The external perturbations constantly bombarding an organization, rise its level of criticality.
In the organizational theory and practice, the external perturbations are considered as something that impedes the development of an organization. It is assumed that if the external environment is kept quiet and predictable, the organizations function much better than in a turbulent and unpredictable environment. As a consequence of such an assumption, a great amount of efforts has been spent (and continues to be spent) to explore how to avoid or minimize (neutralize) the effect of the perturbations. And the more energy is spent in fighting with what is considered as disturbing organizational dynamics 'from outside', the less energy goes to an actual development of these dynamics form 'inside'.
The environment can never be made to behave according to the preferences of the organizations (or their leaders); it is the organizations that need to learn how to 'dance', according to the rhythm of the environment, no matter how chaotic this rhythm appears.
What is necessary to be underlined is that although the external perturbations cannot be directly used for tuning organizational criticality, they are bearers of an immense energy. The question is whether it is possible to transform this seemingly disturbing energy into a creative energy supporting the fitness and growth of the organization from within, where the essence of the organization palpitates?
The essence of every organization consists of the individuals (agents) who build this organization through their dynamical relationships and make it evolve and grow through their competency, skills and continuous activity.
To say that some external perturbations affect an organization means that they affect, above all, its essence - the agents who work in it. And it is these same agents who directly absorb the effects of the energy contained in the external perturbations.
In the moment of this absorption, a unique kind of transformation occurs: the energy contained in something that acts from outside of the organization - from its environment, transforms into energy of the agents acting from inside of the organization - from its very essence.
As far as the swarm of thoughts and feelings of people is extremely sensitive to any motioning in the environment, the release of the energy of the external perturbations (through the effects, which they have on the human dynamics) occurs almost immediately. And this energy then rises the level of criticality of the human dynamics, which are at the core of the overall organizational dynamics, and hence rises the level of criticality of the whole organization.
The transformation of the energy contained in the perturbations bombarding the organization into levels of criticality of the entire organization can occur either unconsciously or consciously. In the first case, the agents are ignorant (or are deliberately held in ignorance) about the nature of the perturbations, their source and power. In the second case, the agents make conscious efforts to understand (through their own experience, AWARENESS and LEARNING) where the perturbations come from and how strong could be their consequences on the overall organizational activity; the depth of this understanding varies from individual to individual. Although the both ways result in heightening the level of criticality in the organization, the first way is usually accompanied with an ever-growing stress and tension in the agents' behaviour, whereas the second way contributes to the growth of their knowledge and stimulates their creativity.
So, the question whether it is possible to transform the seemingly disturbing energy of the external perturbations into creative energies supporting organizational development can be answered positively, provided the agents do not blindly surrender to the external forces but constantly learn how to better understand their sources, their ever-changing nature and influences.
Any increase of the level of criticality in organization caused by external perturbations provides unique opportunities for learning - just through a mindful observation how the other agents react to perturbations of different nature and intensity, one can learn enormous amount of lessons for one's own behaviour. The greatest lesson, perhaps, is the lesson of self-management: how to manage oneself mentally and emotionally, how to help and care about those who need support in order to cope with the growth of criticality, and how to motivate, energize and inspire oneself, without waiting for stimulators from outside.
Critical organizational dynamics are impregnated with huge number of possibilities for creative development, for strengthening the fitness and accelerating the growth of the organization. If the organization (including its leaders) does not continually learn to see these possibilities, its survival is in danger. The chances for failure of an organization are directly proportional to the number of the failed-to-be-seen possibilities for its development - the greater this number, the higher the chance for failure.
Fortunately, the critical organizational dynamics are not only impregnated with potential for emergence, they constantly realize this potential: criticality gives birth to strange attractors (or repellers) - emergent patterns of self-organizing energy.
As far as the activity of each agent working in an organization is purposeful, that is, oriented towards attainment of a certain purpose (goal, objective), the purpose can be considered as a focal dynamic pattern in an agent's mental space, which constantly attracts the swarm of the agent's thoughts and feelings. Without having any concrete material expression, this pattern informs, motivates and inspires the actions of the agent, and therefore plays the role of a strange attractor able to expand, shrink, merge with other attractors, collapse or 'explode' into new dynamic patterns in the agent's mental space.
The purposes of the agents working in an organization crucially depend on their values, beliefs, and motivations,that is, on relatively stable and yet open for changes and evolution ideas (inevitably coloured with emotions and psychological response), which they hold as meaningful and true.
However complex and chaotic the dynamics of an organization, they are always pulled towards the purpose of this organization as a whole. The purpose of the organization propels - informs, motivates and inspire the whole rich spectrum of activities carried by the organization, and reflects its mission statements, its strategies and visions about the future, as well as other (open or confidential, official or informal) organizational documents. The purpose of the organization plays the role of a strange attractor whose structure emerges as projections of the overall purpose of the organization on different levels (scales) of its functioning (divisions, departments, project teams, working groups, agents).
Harmonious Resonance Theorem:Harmonious resonance in an organization occurs if and only if the agents' strange attractors representing their purposes are 'tuned':
(1) in harmony with one another, and
(2) in accord with the strange attractor of the overall purpose of the organization.
As far as the agent's purposes strongly relate to their values, beliefs and motivations, the condition (1) implies mutual willingness for collaboration, cooperation and complementarity between the agents, rather than competition, obstruction and conflicts.
The condition (2) requires that the overall purpose of the organization reflect the purposes of the agents, and vice versa: the purposes of the agents mirror the overall purpose of the organization.
The 'accord' required by the second condition does not imply sameness - the organizational and individual purposes do not need to be the same in order to be in harmony. Moreover, the sameness is simply impossible, as the comparison is between two essentially different scales - the characteristics at organizational level differ from the characteristics at individual level. What is required is similarity - a similar kind of purposes. In chaos theory, the similarity at different scale levels has a special name: fractals.
In summary, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the harmonious resonance to happen in an organization is an increase in criticality up to level, beyond which the strange attractors representing the agents' purposes coalesce into an all-embracing fractal structure of one and only one strange attractor - the strange attractor corresponding to the overall purpose of the organization.
In today's run-by-money society, the individual and organizational purposes are money-oriented. When the value of money has highest priority in the societal life, most of the agents share the belief that the more money they can earn, the better they can organize their living; so the motivation to work is money-based and the purpose is to have more money. Similar is the thinking at organizational level - the higher the profit, the stronger is the position of the organization; so the purpose is to increase the profit.
The similarity in the relationship of the agents and their organizations to the flow of moneys meets the second condition of the Harmonious Resonance Theorem - there are fractal relationships (that is, a cross-scale similarity) between the purposes of the agents and the organization.
Unfortunately, the first condition of the Harmonious Resonance Theorem cannot be satisfied when the money is a dominant attractor for the agents and the organization. Instead of complementarity and collaboration, it is the competition and the pursuit for egoistic interests that are compatible both with the individual and with the organizational passion for profit. Financial alliances are possible, if and only if they strengthen the competitive capacity of the 'collaborating' sides vis-a-vis their rivals.
As P. Bourdieu explains that from the markets where the organizations compete, the competition naturally extends to individuals themselves, "through the individualization of the wage relationship:
In this way, a Darwinian world emerges - it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress." (Pierre Bourdieu)
- establishment of individual performance objectives, individual performance evaluations, permanent evaluation,
- individual salary increases or granting of bonuses as a function of competence and of individual merit;
- individualised career paths;
- strategies of "delegating responsibility" tending to ensure the self-exploitation of staff who, simple wage labourers in relations of strong hierarchical dependence, are at the same time held responsible for their sales, their products, their branch, their store, etc. as though they were independent contractors...
The first condition of the Harmonious Resonance Theorem can be satisfied with attractors of purpose that are out of the sphere of money. Stronger than the fever for money is the individual urge for self-realization; its creative capacity is boundless. If the conditions in the organization stimulate this urge, there are no limits for both the individual and organizational growth. When the inspiration drives the swarms of thoughts and feelings of the agents, the organization becomes robust through finding its own rhythm of activity.
To find the rhythm of an organization means to find the 'pulse' of its self-realization expressed in the pace of innovation (how often and when to change its production), of transition from one spectrum of activities to another, of entraining with other relevant organizations. It is a challenge for the managers and leaders to reveal the rhythm of self-realization of their organizations. Once revealed, this rhythm can be constantly energized through the urge for self-realization of each and every agent in the organization. And, vice versa, the individual urge for self-organization can be stimulated by the rhythm of the whole organization, as the rhythm motivates people to
According to S. Brown and K. Eisenhardt, the rhythm helps also for:
- do things simultaneously and in coherence
- have a clearer sense of changing priorities and different time horizons
- 'fractalize' and pace their activity.
The rhythm of self-realization keeps the organization directly connected with the very core of its human dynamics, where the swarm of people's thoughts and feelings never ceases to pulsate. And it is exactly through the pulsation of this swarm - through the rhythms of our brainwaves and heartbeats reflected in our capacity to think and feel, that we aspire to grasp the rhythm of life and nature.
- synchronizing the organization of complex tasks
- giving people a way to pace their own work
- enhancing confidence building
- driving a time pace that other organizations end up following.
1. Corner, D. 1998 Leading at the Edge of Chaos, John Wiley & Sons
2. Langton, C. 1989 Artificial Life In C. G. Langton, ed. Artificial Life, Volume VI of SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, pages 1-47, Addison-Wesley, Redwood City, CA
3. Bak, P. 1999 How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality, Copernicus Books
4. Bourdieu, P. 1998 The essence of neoliberalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, 12
5. Brown, S. and K. Eisenhardt 1998 Competing On The Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos, Harvard Business School Publ.
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