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Self-organization is a process in which local interaction between parts of an organization produces emergent patterns of behavior of a coherent kind in the whole, all in the absence of a blueprint or plan for that whole. Local interaction produces a global pattern that need not be designed.

Complexity science, and those who use complexity science as a source of analogy for human organizations, say that complex organizations are inherently self-organizing, that they move on their own, changing into the future. (Stacey, 2000, pp 18)

Formative and transformative self-organization --
Self-organization as cause can be understood in one of two fundamental ways, the first being formative and the second being transformative. (Stacey, 2000, pp 18) In both cases patterns emerge.

  • formative -- In the case of formative self-organization as cause, what emerges, or unfolds, is a form enfolded in the organization. Therefore, though the form is emerging, it is also predictable. A final state can be known in advance, or the future is theoretically predictable, or predictable to a great degree. For example, an acorn becomes an oak. The final number of leaves and branches or even lifespan may be unpredictable, the general form will be an oak tree. This is a type of self-organization that reproduces forms without any significant transformation
    The formative self-organizing process produces both stability and change but the pattern of change is in some sense predetermined so that there can be no significant change in the level of the form, or the whole. This type of change cannot encompass true novelty, the production of form that is entirely new and thus unknowable. Change is a shift from one given form to another due to sensitivity to context. The organization changes through stages of development.
  • transformative -- In the case of transformative self-organization there is no form enfolded in the organization. New forms arise in the present, resulting in an unpredictable future. Transformative self-organization is paradoxical, characterized by both continuity and potentially radical transformation.
    The source of change is in the detail of interactive movement in the living present, movement of a circular kind that is reflected in the macro sweep of time, past and future. In complexity terms, this is a fractal process. Micro-diversity in local interactions, micro-interpretations, transforms global patterns, paradoxically, forming while being formed. Variation in these interactions results in novelty. True novelty comes about from this process.
    In this iterative interactive process, the continuity of identity is always open to change -- gradual or abrupt changes in identity or not change, depending on the spontaneity and diversity of micro interactions. Identity is continuously evolving and changing, there is both the possibility of sameness, or continuity, and the potential for transformation at the same time.

Whether organizations are, or are viewed as, self-organizing or not, and whether that self-organization is formative or transformative, has profound implications for managing and leading their development. For further discussion of these implications, see management science.

Self-organization and causality --
Self-organization is an aspect of causality of an organization related to its movement into the future, organization evolution, which results from learning, knowledge creation, production of novelty, etc. resulting in the transformation of the organization.

Self-organization is an insight coming from the natural complexity sciences, where the term 'complexity' has to do with --

  • the intrinsic uncertainty and unpredictability of a great many natural phenomena,
  • the importance of diversity in the evolution of novel forms,
  • the self-organizing, emergent nature of that evolution.

The insight is that novel global, population-wide forms emerge unpredictably in self-organizing, that is, local, interaction, in the absence of any blueprint, programme or plan for global population-wide form. (Stacey, 2007, pp 3)