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Networks and (self) organization

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 29 maart 2013

Ben van Lier
In the near future, networks consisting of both people and objects, like the Internet of Things, will cause huge changes in organizations. However, the exchange and sharing of information that takes place independent of place and time will not only encourage innovation; it will also present threats if we fail to anticipate these changes adequately or are insufficiently considerate when dealing with these changes.


A recently published Dutch report [1] drawn up in response to the events that took place in Haren, the Netherlands, last year concludes that the current traditional structures of Dutch government are not at all equipped to deal effectively with these kinds of issues. And it is particularly the more hierarchical echelons of government – such as the police and public administration – that will find it most difficult to anticipate on the flat organization and communication structures of these networks. Organizations in the private and public sectors must therefore learn to function in complex systems, in which individuals and entities are interlinked within networks. The changes required demand a conscious alteration of perspective from a vertical and hierarchical organization to a horizontal form of organization in networks. However, this form of organizing, based on networks, also raises the question of whether ‘this development to connect more entities and systems in coalitions of networks could be the start of an evolutionary step for society and the organizations within’. [2]

Self organization

A new form of organization will be based, on the one hand, on the ability to exchange and share information in temporary coalitions and networks across individuals, across objects, as well as between individuals and objects. On the other hand, we also have the self organization of autonomous units, as described by Atkinson and Moffat in their book Agile Organization [3]. This is how they define self organization: “Self organization in this context is taken to mean the coming together of a group of individuals to perform a particular task. They are not directed by anyone outside the group”. In their view, self organization is not the same as self-management, because there is no direct influence of a manager or supervisor outside the group determining what the group does. It is predominantly the group members themselves that come together and determine how they will perform or shape the tasks assigned to them. According to Atkinson and Moffat, a typical characteristic of these types of groups is “that they are informal and often they are temporary. Enabling self organization can often be a source of innovation”. In order to make self organization possible, new forms of leading and leadership must be developed – leading and leadership in which the delegation of responsibilities and authorities plays a central role in creating space for the autonomous groups to determine, within a specific context, the appropriate solution at that moment, in that specific place, for that particular issue. For example, a crisis situation that demands a quick response. The execution of the specific response by the autonomous group determines how the specific situation is experienced. To be able to act as an autonomous group, both the group and those responsible for that group must trust each other and be aware of each other’s intentions and responsibilities.


This type of self organization makes it possible for totally new forms of organization – such as swarming – to be developed, even within such hierarchically structured institutions like the police and public administration. The concept of swarming as described by Arquilla and Ronfeldt [4] is based on networks within which information is shared and exchanged. Additionally, the small-scale and self-organizing units possess a high degree of mobility and resources, and a clear overview of the crisis situation. This enables them to come together in a specific place at a particular time very rapidly, and to influence a situation via this temporary coalition in an effective manner. The concept of swarming developed by Arquilla and Ronfeldt is an organizational form that lies also at the foundation of the so-called flash mobs. According to the report of the Cohen commission, the events in Haren were up till then the biggest flash mob in the Netherlands, and the authorities of the public administration and the police were insufficiently prepared to deal with it appropriately. The time has come for organizations in the private and public sectors to take seriously the development of networks such as the Internet of Things, and to consider this as a disruptive technology that will put in question the existing social and organizational points of departure. Taking this development within society seriously will result in space being created to support and facilitate the process of evolution of organizations.

[1] Twee werelden. You only live once. Hoofdrapport Commissie ‘project X’ Haren
[2] Lier v. B. and Hardjono T.W. (2011) A system theoretical approach to interoperability of information. Systemic practice and action research, vol. 24 , issue 5, pages 479-497
[3] Atkinson S.R. And Moffat J. (2005) The Agile organization. From informal networks to complex effects and agility Washington, DoD Command and Control Research Program. ISBN 1-893723-16-x
[4] Arquilla J. Ronfeldt D. (2000) Swarming & The future of conflict. Rand National Defense Research Institute.

Ben van Lier works at Centric as an account director and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.