Self-organizing systems

Michelle Cooper coopgrp at
Mon Aug 23 22:12:33 PDT 1999

Thanks for the references for additional reading and for the richness of discussion.  I have studied natural science in depth and dedicated the first 20 years of my career to learning and understanding human beings and the amazing way that nature takes care of itself. I have also studied systems and systems theories.  Our understanding of systems has evolved substantially since Ludwig von Bertalanffy first proposed general systems theories in the '50s. Some of what I have struggled with regarding self-organizing systems was well stated in Birgitt's submission.

My graduate education introduced me to two paradigms ...totality and simultaneity.  The totality paradigm incorporates all of the systems based theories of my profession, which tend to be reductionistic, deal with quantification and particularize experiences into segments, or systems.  While acknowledging wholeness, the explanation of human experience is reductionistic.  The simultaneity paradigm  is concerned with wholeness, transcendence and phenomenology; the lived experience of humans; that properties of the whole are not those of its parts. "This is not a denial of interactions between subsystems or between levels of an organization....nor is intellectual acceptance that man is a system having his own identifiable oneness a guarantee against the common practice of describing man according to one or more subsystems, thereby destroying the meaning of man in his wholeness." (Martha Rogers, 1970). 
 The theories are based on quantum physics; that there is interconnectedness that you cannot separate or break down to explain the experience of the whole. In fact, the notion of "whole systems" feels like an oxymoron to me. Shortly after embracing the  ideas of simultaneity, I learned Open Space.  I had great Ahas about how one could lead in a way that fit within the simultaneity paradigm, as the prevailing management theories did not fit for me either.  So, where is all this going?  When we talk about OS self-organizing systems, I have problem with the self part as stated before, and I have problem with particularizing the experience into a system.  I fully agree that people self-organize their day in open space, because individuals make choices about how they will use their time and the whole of the day emerges from the patterns created by the individuals coming together.  The experience that people describe is not just a system - input, throughput, output, feedback.  It is something far greater that "system" cannot capture in my mind.  "The Universe is not a collection of objects, but is an inseparable web of vibrating energy patterns in which no one component has reality independently from the entirety. Included in the entirety is the observer." Bell's theorem on the indivisibility of the Universe.

 What is emerging for me is that our different paradigms are perhaps shaping how we perceive and articulate the experience of open space.  I would have likely agreed with you wholeheartedly 6 years ago before I began the simultaneity journey, having been a systems theory disciple.  But now, it does not fit my perception.  I also recognize the limitation of our language and experience to describe the unquantifiable.   

My last thought (for now) is about using the "spirit"  word.  It seems to me with the plethora of books now on the shelf about spirit and soul in the workplace, that the time is right to come out of the closet.  Are we being authentic if we talk about self-organizing systems at the expense of spirit?  Are we operating from a fear base?  What exactly are we afraid of?  While I am conscious of how I introduce the idea of spirit in conversation with any client (corporate or not) because it is a value laden word, I always talk about it because it always shows up in open space.  I am not so certain about a self-organizing system showing up and I am not sure I would recognize it if I saw it, despite our conversations here.  

Ah, nothing like exercising the gray matter!!! Now I must sleep!

Kind regards

Michelle Cooper, RN, MScN
The Cooper Group Consultants
200 Crestview  Avenue
Ancaster, Ontario
Canada L9G1E2  
Telephone -     (905) 648- 4633
Fax -           (905) 648-1763
E-mail          coopgrp at

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