Shared by Barry Camson

At the recent European Design Forum Conference (EODF) in Milan Elvira Kalmar and I offered a joint perspective on emergent or temporary organizations. The EODF conference was attended by practitioners involved with organization design.

My perspective is based on having worked with organizations that take the form of networks. In these networks, groupings of people emerge as needed in order to respond to common challenges. The groupings often start as conversations among several people. Over time, more people may join the conversation. These conversations lead to the exchange of knowledge and often to taking joint action. Joint action may take the form of short-term initiatives or even longer-term, more formal spin-offs. When the work of this emergent grouping is completed, people move on to other endeavors. I refer to this result of self-organization as “emergence.”

I have seen this emergence occur on a daily basis in a network of universities and colleges around Boston that joined together as the Boston Consortium of Higher Education in order to deal with common administrative and financial challenges. Though a given university will be a highly traditional organization, the network among them offers flexibility to self-organize based on a minimal infrastructure and on common purpose, norms and values.

Elvira’s perspective is based on her having been involved with the volunteer group, Migration Aid, which was formed to help refugees now reaching Hungary who are escaping from the crisis in Syria and other places. She noticed how temporary “purpose-driven organizations” are formed by the volunteers to provide for the basic needs of the refugees: food, water, shelter at transit stations and information about the legal rights of refugees. This volunteer group had a very clear purpose and it could mobilize over 9000 people, 500-600 active in the field and financially supported by the rest.

Elvira also has noticed that the refugees, themselves, as they endeavor to survive and make their way to new destinations, form temporary purpose save-their-life groupings. People form themselves together to meet needs for food, healthcare or to share navigational information. Some of these groupings occur on-line, others in person. When the needs of the moment are met for the grouping in question, people move on to deal with the next challenge. Elvira refers to this result of self-organization as “temporary purpose-driven organizations.”

The example of refugee groupings is important because it is a “pure” case. There are no organizational structures that pre-ordain a given result. There are diverse cultures and norms that do not provide an immediate common ground that could lead to a default organization. What is evident here is that the challenge of survival combines with the ability of humans to self-organize resulting in highly functional endeavors often using interactive, internet technology.

I relate the example of temporary organizations of volunteers or refugees back to the new field of Network Science which offers insight into the self-organizing ability of people. Network Science captures network dynamics based on observations of people as well as whales, other biological phenomena and even the workings of computer networks. These observations are aided by network analysis and mathematics using the power of computers. One aspect of network analysis makes network relationships visible through the use of network mapping tools.

Examples of network dynamics include how some people (nodes) become popular hubs for others to connect to. Such nodes combine a fitness for a currently needed use along with the human capital of already having many connections to continually increase their role as hubs. This leads to the further development of a network.

People (nodes) can have strong ties with those around them that enable them to exert their influence or weak ties with those further out that help them to exchange important knowledge.

People also naturally incline towards facilitating connections among others who they know but who do not yet know each other.

These network phenomena along with the absence of constraining structures enable groups of people operating as a network to respond to immediate challenges that they face. The use of internet technology along with direct in-person interactions supports a real-time response to these challenges.

This brings us back to the phenomena of temporary purpose-driven organizations in the volunteer community in Hungary. In these organizations, purpose directs action.

Elvira notes that there are no leaders. People organize around purpose and in the endeavor of survival, purpose tends to be crystal clear and overwhelmingly powerful. People link together to get things done and being efficient in doing so is critically important since the purpose is to help survival.

Elvira points out that crowd-funding is an important aspect of this. People from surrounding communities respond to requests to meet refugee needs with food, clothes, medical supplies, and temporary housing. As such, the larger network involves more than the volunteers in the field. There are strong and weak ties that extend out through the surrounding environment.

Now, let’s move away from the pure case of temporary organizations among volunteers to ask how all of this can be of use in our day-to-day commercial efforts.

One person in our conference discussion provided the example of “pop-up restaurants” which also revolve around a purpose, endeavor to meet a specific set of needs, and involve others in an emergent manner for short-term restaurant activities.

I believe that what also assists pop-up restaurants are the same network dynamics that enable people with strong and weak ties to share requests for what is needed, to share knowledge that such a restaurant exists and to influence others to visit. I imagine that there is a larger network of pop-up restaurant enthusiasts.

The same dynamics that support refugee survival also support success of these commercial endeavors. The challenge in such commercial enterprises that are not driven by the powerful purpose of survival is to arrive at a common understanding of a motivating and important purpose. Leadership in these commercial endeavors can also be fluid and distributed among a number of people.

Finally, let’s take a look at how these practices could apply within a traditional, larger corporation. The agile software development movement is one practical application of temporary task sub-groups within larger more formal organizations.

The role of emergence can be seen in the informal networks that exist within every formal organization. People in organizations create their own informal, emergent networks to accomplish the work of the organization, connect with others for camaraderie and exert influence. These networks may or may not be aligned with the formal organizational structure. Organization network analysis tools like OrgMapper™ which I have used make these networks and their various dynamics visible. Putting visible maps of these networks in the hands of employees and managers supports their ability to improve the effectiveness of these networks and align the networks with the formal organization. When combined with training in effective network behaviors, the ability of employees to form productive, emergent groupings is enhanced.

I believe that the foundation of all of these examples are network dynamics, the ability of humans to self-organize around shared purpose and an environment that supports flexibility and fluidity.

What can each of us do?

The examples and ideas that Elvira and I have set out indicate the importance of individual action in the context of a community and collective with a strong and guiding purpose. This leads to the question of what can each of us be doing in our own spheres of influence. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Wherever possible focus on purpose. Create conversations about why the purpose is important, whether it needs to be adjusted, and how the purpose connects with the hearts, minds and values of each person.
  2. Create the space for people to come together to talk, share knowledge, plan and take action and to develop human relationships in the process.
  3. Support the sharing of needs, requests, and expertise through in-person and on-line technologies.
  4. Make the networks of relationships and their various aspects visible so that they can be the topic of conversations and action.
  5. Support effective citizenship (network) behaviors where they exist and help people to develop them where they do not. Recognize that many effective citizenship behaviors arise out of the common sense exhibited by well-meaning people.


Barry Camson is an organization development consultant and trainer working internationally. His work focuses on organization design, creating collaborative organizations and the development of effective networks within and between organizations and among people. He can be contacted at BCamson@aol.com. If you would like to share your thoughts about the ideas in this paper, please reach out and connect.



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