Enterprise 2.0 and emergent behaviour

By December 20, 2006 3 Comments


The inspiration for this post was Dion Hinchcliffe’s review of enterprise2.0 in 2006.  He cites the blog of Harvard Professor Andrew McAfee who posts a lot of intelligent thoughts about enterprise2.0.  It caught my attention when he said enterprise2.0 is about:

Emergent Structures, Rather than Imposed Ones

This fits well with my notion of enterprise2.0 being about the adoption of new technologies from the edge of the enterprise inwards, replacing the old model of imposition from the centre out.

The notion of “emergent structures” is a complicated and slightly counter intuitive one, yet I am thinking it will be very important in understanding the importance and power of enterprise2.0 apps.  Emergent structures are patterns of intelligent behaviour which emerge bottom up from the independent actions of agents with no central control.  They are common in nature – ant colonies are an oft cited example.  This notion is counter intuitive because it is hard to see how the agents know what to do.  The slightly unsatisfactory answer is that this knowledge somehow forms by natural processes of evolution and the agents somehow learn their role.  I guess you could make an analogy to the roles people play in teams.  If you want to read more try this definition of emergence.

The beauty of this notion is that emergent structures could govern employee’s behaviour, replacing central control with a more dynamic and flexible set of rules, formed and modified at the edge – making your company agile and flexible but without introducing chaos. 

The scary part is for management – the CEO will sit in centre and need to just trust that appropriate structures will emerge – this will require a big leap of faith.

Blogs are a good example of this happening in marketing.  Blogging best practices and codes of conduct have emerged and as a result companies are increasingly trusting their employees to write blogs and tailor their own marketing messages.

I am currently reading Emergence by Stephen Johnson (thanks to JP for putting me on to it) so I may be getting carried away with this stuff, but it seems to me that herein lies the value of social software and its power to facilitate a shift in culture from control to co-ordination.

If any of you have seen examples of new behaviour patterns emerging as the result of social software I’d love to hear about it.  I scoured Andrew McAfee’s blog eagerly and whilst he talks about companies that have adopted social software he doesn’t describe any emergent structures.