Emergence: an unusable illusion for companies (posted by Fabien Villard)

In the open source community we see very efficient results emerging from non organized groups of people acting individually. Companies should fear this mechanism because it cannot be used inside organized entities. There are economical explanations of this for example in this book from Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations reviewed in this article from Bruce Schneier. Here I want to focus on another aspect of the problem: emergence is an evolutionary mechanism.

Emergence example

Ants and other so-called social insects have long posed (and continue to pose) problems to biologists, ethologists, sociologists, and a lot of other disciplines: how could so complex behaviors and capabilities be hosted in a so small brain? How could a so small animal be able to build sophisticated constructs, with thermal mechanism, mazes, defense buildings? How optimized paths to food could be found with so few neurons?

Finding and using

The main answer to those questions is emergence. We now know that ants and termites as individuals have relatively simple behaviors; They respond to a limited set of simple rules. For example, when an ant gets out of the anthill for food it first do it randomly. While traveling it leaves traces of pheromones on its way. Simple behavior. If it finds food, it then follows the traces back and adds some more pheromones on the path. When another ant gets out of the hill, it has a very simple rule encouraging it to follow a path of pheromones. The most pheromones make the most attractive path. So a path with a return (two traces) is more attracting than a path with only one (no return, so no food chance). And a new ant will add its trace, going and returning with food. Statistically, paths to food will survive in the set of all possible paths, until the food resource is exhausted. At this point the path will begin to loose attraction because ants won’t come back on it very often, searching randomly new resources from the exhausted one location.


Sometimes, more than one path lead to the same food resource. The shortest, in time, sees more ants walking on it, more pheromone traces added to it. The concentration of pheromones on this path increases hence the path becomes more and more attractive compared to other less walked ones. In a short time all other paths are abandoned and only the shortest (in time) will survive. Ants have chosen the optimized path. How?

No super-ant

No ant is able to compute the optimized path. They even cannot compute a path at all. In fact it is probable they don’t know anything about paths and what a target may be. The choice is only a guise. A choice implies a conscious act and no ant is able to do something like that. The concept disguised as a choice is called emergence: from a collection of simple behaviors created through simple rules, a complex behavior emerge, which is the product of a large number of simple programmed actions instead of a complex computed and decided strategy.

No super-banker

Emergence shows its face in human behaviors too. The financial market is a very complex domain. We know that nobody is able to understand it and predict its behavior with great accuracy. Not to say that nobody has been able to build the financial market from scratch. Though there is something complex, human build, observable and it is called financial market. It emerged from a huge collection of individual actions made by a lot of humans. It has its own internal and unknown logic and may be seen as a homogeneous behavior of a big entity (the Market) with a virtual consciousness like the ant heap may be seen as an organization with virtual consciousness.

No super IT-Engineer either?

Our IT systems are today like the financial market: the complex result of a number of individual actions ran nearly randomly out of any strategy. Each move adds its trace on the pile of pheromone: it has been used here (and no matter if it has been used for good or for bad). And the stronger the pheromone track, the stronger the urge to act like others. Could something as efficient as an anthill emerge from this chaos inside companies? No chance!

No chance really?

Ants and anthills have evolved during a very very long period of time with a huge number of attempts (generations) before the result we see today. Amongst this huge number of tries a lot did not have the slightest chance to survive. In fact the vast majority were not viable at all. In open IT communities, we see the same mechanism: the number of actors is potentially huge and they all act according to there personal skills. Ideas and projects may be abandoned without consequences and the number of tries may be important enough to induce a good emergence phenomenon. But for a company IS we don’t have opportunities to get the number of tries to see a correct solution emerge from the chaos. No time. With the very few number of tries we can count on, there is no chance to even see a viable solution. Not even the tiniest hope. This is just a cold statistical computation. Period.

An efficient alternate strategy

Emergence is not the way but methodological building is. There is a huge difference between nature and open source communities in one hand and companies in the other: goal. There is no goal in nature, there are precise goals in companies. Goals must obviously constrain all company actions. This is the essence of a company as an organized entity. All actions not aligned with goals are lost and waste part of the limited amount of energy available. The only way to have all actions aligned with goals is to deduce actions from goals by conscious decisions. We as humans are the first (on earth) entity to be able to build things by a conscious act of will. We have the ability to analyze, criticize and built new answers by deciding to examine problems and deduce solutions. Why not use this capability?

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