Emergent behavior and unintended consequences in social systems

One of the defining characteristics of Enterprise 2.0 implementation efforts according to Andy McAfee, among others, is the presence of emergent behaviors in the organization as participants interact with and adapt to new technology functions and features. The notion of ’emergent behavior’ is pretty well established in the study of complex systems. Yet it still seems to trouble many executives, particularly those with strong project management and operations backgrounds.

I was pondering this over the weekend and I think I’ve found a way to explain it in a more satisfying way.

Emergent behaviors are unintended consequences that make you happy.

We are social animals that have evolved to operate optimally in small groups (check out Dunbar’s number). As social systems get larger, they exceed our capacity to make accurate inferences and predictions. Complex organizations and political entities represent design solutions that compensate for these limits and allow us to take on tasks and efforts beyond the grasp of small groups. Technology adds to the complexity and increases the capacity of the system at the expense of making the system still more difficult to predict.

‘Unintended consequences’ is a consulting term for ‘oops.’ It’s a belated admission that it’s difficult to predict all the ways in which a system will react to its environment. A typical response is to work more diligently to lock things down, usually by squeezing out opportunities for human judgment and adaptability. This leads to the TSA and zero-tolerance policies that suspend six-year olds.

A better response is to stop treating people like interchangeable components in a machine and start designing with an eye toward integrating human limits and human creativity into our systems. Assume that the new system will produce unexpected results. Focus your design effort more on swinging the balance toward pleasant surprises and less on eliminating surprises altogether.

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