Month: August 2008

Self-organisation, evolution of social systems and learning

In the past few months, together with some colleagues in the caledonian academy, Iw have been working on self-regulation, mainly in the context of knowledge work and non-formal learning in the workplace, and particulalry the role of emergent technologies in enhancing self-regulation.  Most of this work is in early conceptualisation stage (including in the form of a couple of EU research grant proposals being submitted) and has not been published yet, apart from some deliberations by various colleagues in our group blog and a presentation at the last EDMEDIA conference.

There are various notions related to self-regulation, such as self-direction and self-organisation, and we are thinking about which of these may best descibe learning in the context of both formal and non-formal learning.  Isobel Falconer reviews what some of the psychology literatue has to say on this.   

I have come across interesting work by Charlotte Hemelrijk and colleagues looking at self-organisation from the perspective of complexity science and particularly in the context of evolution of social systems of animals (including humans).  They are exploring self-organisation within social systems ranging from single-celled organisms to humans; within groups of various sizes ranging from small (eg primates) to very large (eg social insects); and are dealing with various aspects of organistion such as group formation, task-division, dominance interactions, language and voting.

This work offers very interesting insights, although many of the findings and concepts being discussed, I think, cannot be directly extrapolated to (informal) learning in the workplace and have to be used metaphorically in this context.  Some relevant points are summarised below:

1. Self-organisation is defined as “the emergence of order on a global scale through interactions on a local scale” (de Boer, p.123).  This is predicated on the following assumption:

2. The system within which self-organisation occurs has two components: actors and interactions. Actors do not have to be able to determine their own actions and can behave in a completely reactive way (eg they can be molecules or neurons).

3. “There is a population of actors and the interactions always entail a number of actors that is considerably smaller than the total number of actors in the population. This is what is meant by interaction on a local scale” (de Boer, p. 124).

4. “Behaviour that cannot be predicted directly from the behaviours of indvidual actors in a system, but is caused by interaction between actors and/or their environment, is referred to as emergent behaviour or emergence” (ibid).

5. “When emergent behaviour involves many indviduals and results in regulat collective behaviour, then it is referred to as self-organising” (ibid)

6. “For self-organising to happen, there must be positive feedback between the behaviour of individuals. Small fluctuations in individuals must be amplified and adopted by other individuals for a pattern to spread through the population” (ibid).

7. “Emergent phenomena arise in social systems as a consequence of self-reinforcing effects, which imply that if an event takes place it increases the likelihood that it will happen again” (Hemelrijk, p.1). For example Deneuborg et al show how in the context of foraging for food in ant colonies, when there are two food sources of identical quality and size, by accident one path may be marked (by pheromons) more strongly than another; as a consequence, ants will be attracted to that path and so it will be marked more strongly again. In human societies more complex set of variables may be at play, but can this example tell us anything about the underlying mechanisms of how deas get spread and adopted among humans? (memetics, diffusion of innovation, learning).

8. “In animal societies, collective decisions and patterns emerge thorugh self-organised processes, from a variety of interactions among indviduals.  The rules specifying these interactions are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern. Therefore collective decisions can be made that at the individual level require omnly limited cognitive abilities and partial knowledge of the environment” (Deneubourg et al, p. 25)

9. “Most self-organised decisions and patterns arise as a result of a competition between different sources of information that are amplified trhough positive feedback.” (ibid)

Reference: Hemelrijk, C. (2005) (Ed.). Self-organisation and evolution of social systems. Cambridge: Camrbidge University Press.