The Nature of Emergence for the Firm of The Future
The concept of emergence and emergent processes and behaviour is fundamental to how nature operates.
‘Throughout the living world, the creativity of life expresses itself through the process of emergence’ Fritjof Capra
We all know the feeling when one plus one is greater than two; when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; when a single conversation can be life-changing. As children, we were delighted to see a recognisable image appear when we simply drew an ordered sequence of lines in a dot-to-dot drawing. And no matter how much gardening we do, it is always magical to watch sprouts pop up out of the soil a few days after we plant them.
All biological systems have an emergent quality as all living structures (including social and organisational) are emergent structures. Emergence has a self-generating quality, where individual parts of an ecosystem interact to provide an emergent order (an unfolding of events that are self-fuelled by the actions and interactions of the parts). Emergence is when an organised, complex, and/or cohesive pattern or result arises — often unpredictably — from a series of individually simple component interactions – this is the nature of nature. Emergent systems exhibit synergistic effects, where the individual parts (aware or not) inter-relate and in so doing provide synergies, where the interaction of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts involved in the interaction. This synergy is what feeds the growth of the ecosystem and provides for its emergent behaviour. Humans are part of biotic life and we too exhibit emergent behaviour (from stock market trends to world-wide web interactivity). It is as if the collective whole, through the interaction of the parts, self-organises as a whole. Hence the notions of relationships, communities, ecosystems and Gaia itself all being part of an emergent inter-related community of parts.
Emergence in human behaviour is linked to decentralised, distributed decision-making and self-learning which requires a degree of openness and self-criticism. Critical self-reflection requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, which is not easy at the organisational or personal level. Emergence in business therefore requires a higher level of intellectual and emotional maturity, moral integrity and courage than currently found in the prevailing business ethos of today. It is also important to point out that the level of emergence may vary depending on the organisation’s challenges, and may also vary by area (team, department, focus group) within the organisation.
Conventional thinking suggests that if you want to accomplish something, particularly something complex, you need to fully articulate the desired result, analyse the situation, create a step-by-step plan, gather needed resources, and then execute the plan to completion. If all works well, you will end up with the desired or predicted result. Whilst operating in volatile, dynamically changing environments, there is also a need for innovative and radical redesign, to drive towards as-yet-unimagined results, to accomplish things that have never been done before. How do you accomplish results you cannot even describe? How do you tick boxes that don’t yet exist? Like nurturing seedlings in fertile soil, if you put the right resources together under the right conditions, emergence just happens. It is what happens naturally when all players understand their context and the speed, scale, and scope of what is needed; being empowered to execute the collective vision through individual interactions and emergent behaviour.
The concept of emergence, emergent behaviour, and emergent processes is core to Chaos Theory and Systems Thinking. Emergence is how complexity and diversity are created from simplicity; how the apparently chaotic behaviour of swarms can result in self-organising super-organisms. The collection of the parts — interconnected within a network of synergistic relationships, all contributing to the system while functioning independently — form a dynamic resilient whole whose properties cannot be predicted by analysing the parts.
Collective adaptation emerges from the collective whole as individual members strive to adapt and enhance themselves and their relationships to generate more benefits for themselves and the whole. Order in the chaos of emergence comes through shared values, the core behavioural patterns that provide cohesion and common goal.
Example of Emergence: We are participating in the largest value-generating emergent process in human history, made possible by the internet and mobile communication technologies. Individually and collectively, we have all gained incredible value from our use of and participation in the “the cloud”, which in turn has led to the emergence of new value. No one over-arching governor owns, controls, manages or directs – it is entirely emergent.
In summary, successful emergence at an organisational level requires deeply understanding what ‘good’ looks like, ‘letting go’ of predictability and stepping out of comfort zones, being okay with ambiguity, working with dynamic tension, being flexible and patient, and operating at a higher level of trust and intellectual and moral maturity than is typically found in today’s organisations.
This is an extract from ‘The Nature of Business’, which you can find here for North American version
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