self-organization is the future

If we as a society think it is important that citizens are engaged, people are passionate about their work, and that we all contribute to making a better world, then we need to enable self-organization. Central planning and hierarchical decision-making are just too slow and ineffective, especially for complex situations involving lots of people. In my network learning model, people constantly navigate between social networks, communities of practice, and work teams. Personal knowledge mastery is the individual discipline that can enable this, while working out loud is how groups stay in touch and learn. It all hinges on individuals taking control of their learning, and organizations giving up control.

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” – Isaac Asimov


Self-organization is a major challenge for people who constantly have been told what to learn at school and later what to do at work.

“While it is certainly true that in organizations, shifting roles and forming new identities creates anxiety, I believe this is a result of the way that organizational life has conditioned us. I believe we are hyper-anxious around role-identity because we have lived our entire lives inside institutions where role-identities represent authoritarian and disciplinary power over us. In other words, institutional roles represent the structural violence that operates within them. The inflexibility of the roles reflects the inflexible relations of institutionalized power.” – Bonnitta Roy

What I call perpetual beta is the attitude to adopt new models and ideas, but being ready to discard them when presented with better models, new evidence, or changing conditions. A key part of this is getting rid of our comfortable old ideas.

“The challenge in self-organizing processes, is that we are not used to letting go of old identities and shape-shifting into new ones. We are uncomfortable in the phases of transition, where identities are not yet fixed, or fixed identities are being challenged in the process of negotiation. This is why we are so obsessed with fixed roles, which represent past conditions and contexts, while remaining unresponsive to present or future conditions and contexts that otherwise might creatively emerge from the many local interactions between people in organizations.” – Bonnitta Roy



The triple operating system relates to the network learning model, but looks at how organizations need to open up. Awareness comes from outside the organization, requiring people inside to spend time connecting to diverse social networks. Space needs to be provided to communities where new ideas can be safely tested. These can be inside and/or outside the organizational walls. Finally, work teams must be not only self-governing but temporary, and hierarchy is then negotiated amongst the members. This is self-organization in action and it takes time for people to master, as well as structures and procedures that can ensure its continuance.

“Over time, people learn how to ‘endure’ the complex and sometimes painful processes of transitioning from being a group of people with fixed roles to becoming a real team where roles and identities are in creative interplay and outcomes are novel and emergent.” – Bonnitta Roy

Self-organizing teams are much more flexible than hierarchical ones, but they require active and engaged members. One cannot cede power to the boss, because everyone is responsible for the boss they chose. Like democracy, self-organized teams are hard work. But they are best to deal with complexity. Hierarchies work well when information flows mostly in one direction: down. They are good for command and control. They are handy to get things done in small groups. But hierarchies are rather useless to create, innovate, or change.

In the network era the unity of hierarchical teams is counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and innovation. We are moving into a post-job economy, and work is becoming much more multifaceted than a simplistic model of Homo Economicus can address. Many of us who do not have jobs are already working in self-organized teams. Organizations can look to these edge cases to see the future. Hierarchies will become temporary arrangements to get things done. The future of work will be hierarchies in perpetual beta, which a triple operating system can enable: Awareness, Alternatives, Action.


7 Responses to “self-organization is the future”

  1. Will Richardson

    Hey Harold,

    You ever read Seymour Sarason? From The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform:

    “The classroom, and the school and school system generally, are not comprehensible unless you flush out the power relationships that inform and control the behavior of everyone in these settings. Ignore those relationships, leave unexamined their rationale, and the existing “system” will defeat efforts at reform…The first step, recognition of the problem, is the most difficult, especially in regard to schools, because we all have been socialized most effectively to accept the power relationships characteristic of our schools as right, natural, and proper, outcomes to the contrary nonwithstanding (7).”

    Those relationships support the status quo. The idea of making schools more democratic, self-organized spaces puts the very institution at risk.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Will. As Brian Alger noted, curriculum is the confinement of the human experience, but also that “Challenging the validity of curriculum in any form means to challenge people’s jobs whether they are political officials, school administrators, consultants, teachers, students or parents.”

  2. max

    I like t think of the new education as a network. The major Nodes will be the top teachers. They will have the following and the power. The greater diversity in teachers we can have…the better.We need more people to teach or share their talents with the younger generations.

  3. Rani

    Wow. I am both unbelievably excited and completely anxious about what you write. I work in a large organization where L&D is used to “message” the masses. It’s the only form of control (outside of money incentives.) People self-organize to get their work done, yet at the same time an incredible tension exists as leadership tries to hold the reins. It’s hard to see the change you’re in the middle of — though sometimes I’m not sure it really is changing to a more self- organizing model. The nature of the work (consulting) requires it – I think.

    I’ve also been reading a book called “reinventing organizations” which resonates with much of what you say. Thank you for your provocative post.

  4. Paul Corney

    Thx for republishing this Harold. It reinforced for me the need for effectve collaborative knowledge spaces. You will remember no doubt the event you came to some 3 years ago which I did an update on last month.
    A few months back I ran a survey on this which I’ve been writing up thru workshops and masterclasses – here’s a snapshot:
    Space is underrated as a tool IMHO. Keep the ideas flowing. Paul


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