This above question I asked myself after reading two very inspiring pieces of work. The first is the PhD. of Mark Elliott, ‘Stigmergic Collaboration. A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration’. The second is a paper from Paul B. Hartzog, ‘The Autocatalysis of Social Systems and the Emergence of Trust’.
Paul argues that every act of communication is also an act of coordination. In order to communicate, both agents involved have to agree on the way communication works, which language is being used. But how do you agree without communication? Communication seems to be interrelated to coordination.
Mark argues that stigmergy is a form of self-organizing, without the need for any communication. This should resolve the coordination paradox. Because agents leave traces in the system, other agents can act on them. This indirect form of communication is not directly addressed to anyone, but the one that notices the trace can act upon it. But how does coordination work here?
The interesting part is that it seems there are some different approaches. Paul is talking about direct communication, while Mark talks about indirect communication. But coordination is always needed. And communication is always happening. Can stigmergy be the autocatalyst for communication? But how is communication being agreed upon? Please let us know your opinion.
So why am I discussing this? Currently I am starting to research self-organization as the new dominant form of organization, and how online collaborative spaces can play a role there. Very much related to digital stigmergy, communication and coordination. The goal of this research is to help organizations, or, better, employees of organizations, how to participate in self-organized groups or online collaborative spaces. Participating starts by giving tools to employees to empower them, and to identify socially interesting online spaces where they can collaborate and co-create.
Self-organization and online collaborative spaces
Social structures are changing. Now we are more connected than we ever were, and this connectivity between humans will grow further and further. At the same time, people are spending more time participating more online. The Internet enables us to participate more globally, which changes the way we communicate and cooperate.
By using the Internet, people leave traces by posting comments, having their visits being logged, writing articles, updating Twitter and Facebook statuses, etc. By doing this, the Internet as complex environment or system changes. These changes caused by humans influences behaviour of other humans. For example, articles on Wikipedia are created and getting better because people create articles and make changes to them. Even all changes are recorded and can be seen by anyone. Most of the time, these actions are uncoordinated, but stimulates a subsequent action. Direct communication is often not necessary. This phenomenon is also known as stigmergy, which is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent.
Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. Because people are more and more connected, and make use of a shared environment, self-organization is happening more and more. People connect through social networks, and organize themselves without any formal contract. Contracts are at most social contracts, for example when people are striving the same goal. Actions and participations are not obligatory, but voluntary. This is very different from the most contracts that exist in most current organizations. People are free to contribute and produce, while their actions are judged by their peers a posteriori.
People working together to produce goods and services through self-organization resembles a new, third, mode of production, which is called (commons-based) peer-production (Benkler, 2002). The central mode of coordination is neither command (as it is inside the firm) nor price (as it is in the market) but self-assigned volunteer contributions to a common pool of resources. On the Internet, producing and coordination costs are very low. Producing, or reproducing, digital goods have almost no transaction costs, and because of stigmergy, coordination costs are very low as well.
Motivations for people to use the Internet to consume and produce are both market-based and social. Most people have to make a living, but are spending time online as well for maintaining social relationships. Combinations of the two are seen as well, and in both directions. People peer-produce while not being paid, but hoping to be noticed by companies that will hire them (or get credit). On the other hand, companies pay people by contributing to open-source projects, because they use these products. Individual people are peer-producing for both reasons at the same time, and for different projects. Their social interests can differ from their professional. These characteristics can be seen as an eco-system where people peer-produce for both motivations, and theoretically can switch very easy from one system to another, and from one project to another.
The enabler for these self-organizing of people is the Internet. More and more tools are being created to be used online that amplify the possibilities to self-organize and peer-produce. Tools are getting more and more mature and make it more and more easy and inviting for people to participate. These self-organized groups are very knowledgeable, which makes these groups very powerful. Power is shifting from classic hiërarchical top-down organizations to decentralized bottom-up organized networks.
Organizations need to adapt to the change of social structures and distribution of power. By starting to recognize that new organizational forms exist and have the right to exist, classic organizations can adapt to, co-exist with and co-operate with the decentralized self-organized groups. Trying to fight or ignore their existance and the value they have and produce will exclude companies from these groups, which is no good for them. Opening up by participating and collaboration is a better strategy. Many companies already do this, but it would be better to adapt to fit these existing groups more. Companies who empower their employees to speak about their company and to collaborate with self-organized groups outside their company are seen as more authentic and are accepted easier in those groups.