Business, complexity and emergence

By Thane on Mon 14 November 2011

In trying to understand business in new ways, it seems as though a variety of authors (academic and non-academic) have been trying to apply perspectives from a relatively new "branch" of science that is still busy taking shape: that of emergence. The concept of emergence comes from a variety of different streams of thought.

Jeffrey Goldstein wrote a paper in 1999 entitled Emergence as a construct: history and issues where he outlined, from his research, the development of the idea of "emergence" in the literature, and one of the best visual representations of this is in the following picture.

Mathematical and scientific roots of emergence (Goldstein, 1999, p 55)

Goldstein defines "emergence" as follows (p 49).

Emergence is the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organisation in complex systems.

What exactly does that mean?

A waterproof raft, made of fire ants?

This article on fire ants will serve as a good example of emergence. If you place a single fire ant in water, it will most likely struggle tremendously, and possibly drown. The moment the water levels start rising under a whole bunch of fire ants, however, they "miraculously" cling together forming a waterproof raft! Fascinating stuff. The new patterns arise only during self-organisation.

What's really fascinating about it is this: there's no central commander (or CEO) ordering the construction of the boat.

The construction of the boat simply "happens" or "emerges" as a result of the much simpler properties of each of the ants: each ant's body is somewhat water-repellent, and so when enough of them get together a raft forms that can carry them off to safety.

New perspectives on society

This is why emergence is such an important concept in understanding ourselves, because all of us together (i.e. society) seem to constitute a very complex, interdependent "system" of some sorts. If the "raft" is an emergent pattern of behaviour in the fire ant community, what sorts of emergent patterns of behaviour do we exhibit?

Then, what are the much simpler properties that we all exhibit on an individual level that, combined, produce these emergent effects? This second question becomes very important because that could possibly give us clues as to how to change our individual behaviour in order to affect the emergent consequences affecting society as a whole.

A simple example of what I see to be emergence in our society would be that of a traffic jam where there's no apparent reason for it.

  1. Person 1 goes around a bend on the highway without much trouble, but slows down ever so slightly as she does.
  2. Person 2, who is following person 1 quite closely, brakes a bit to compensate for person 1's slowing down.
  3. Person 3 sees person 2 braking from a bit of a distance away and so brakes as well to compensate, but brakes a little longer than person 2 does because person 3 is cautious and wants to make sure that he has braked enough to be safe.
  4. Persons 4 and 5 see person 3 braking, and so brake just a little more and ever so slightly little longer than person 3.
  5. And so on...

Eventually, given enough people on the highway, the emergent phenomenon is that we all sit still in a traffic jam. What caused the traffic jam? Not an accident, not any one particular driver's stupidity, but the cumulative effects of our tendencies to over-compensate when braking to ensure safety.

Who's to blame?

We all are.

New perspectives, new types of business

Within the realm of business, this whole idea of emergence brings up some really interesting questions. For example, is it possible to have a whole bunch of people working together on meaningful stuff, creating real value for people, without needing any centralised control?

If so, what are the individual-level characteristics that we need to develop to facilitate this type of "organising"?

I can't answer these questions yet, and it might be some years before we can effectively answer them, but it seems as though Ricardo Semler has made significant steps towards this sort of organising (see this talk by Semler).

New perspectives on traditional business

Not only could an understanding of our collective, emergent properties as a society give us new perspectives on how to organise, but it could also help us explain much of what's happening in the world around us today.

For me, thinking of the way in which business currently runs (the "traditional" models of business, following the traditional rules and patterns), what are the emergent properties of society today caused by the traditional rules, such as imposing hierarchies, incentive schemes, salary structures, etc.?

Is there really a team of evil conspirators pulling strings behind the scenes, or could our current financial and economic crises be emergent effects of far simpler rules that we've imposed upon ourselves?

Like I said, I don't have answers to these questions yet, but I would love to do some more digging in the years to come.

Into the future

As the world gets more and more interconnected and interdependent, we need to start understanding and researching the holistic consequences of our interconnectedness and interdependencies. Otherwise we might end up doing things which on an individual level look absolutely harmless, but on a collective level bring society to a grinding halt.