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Social Emergence and the Fallacy of Enterprise Agility

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  January 27, 2009  |  4 Comments

Just finished a conversation with a client and I see an interesting trend evolving. Interesting in that the emergence benefit from the social computing movement can and often does lead to a lack of enterprise agility. We need to distinguish between levels of agility. Individual agility, team agility, group agility, business unit agility, geographic region agility, and corporate agility can all manifest in different ways and impinge on each other.

Unfettered emergence may increase team or group agility but can impede business unit and corporate agility. I rarely use sports metaphors but in honor of the upcoming superbowl (USA football) I shall. Imagine a football team with super agile players all moving in different directions to pursue their own personal agendas (well intentioned). What do you have? You have an organization that achieves chaos far more quickly than ever before. There seems to be a prevailing sentiment amongst the “emergence purists” (this is my impromptu term) that an organization will be able to identify which of their players really gets it right and then can rally everyone around that player’s approach. This “choosing of the fittest” makes the chaos worth it in the end.  

I have a hard time swallowing this approach and I certainly would not recommend it. I have talked to many clients that are pulling their hair out over unfettered emergence. For example, one client says they have over 10,000 Sharepoint team sites. Although some might call this a success, he considers it a nightmare. He called it an “archipelago from hell.” A mess of unmanageable islands of small picture collaboration that is impeding movement towards a more enterprise approach to agility. This isn’t a failing of Sharepoint but a lack of strategy.

You must also understand the levels of agility towards which you are striving. And you must have a playbook to keep your agile players working in concert towards those goals.

Am I right? Am I wrong?

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Category: social-applications  

Tags: emergence  social-applications  

Anthony J. Bradley
10 years at Gartner
26 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a group vice president in Gartner Research responsible for the research content that Gartner publishes through its three internet businesses (, and These responsibilities include creating and leading the research organization and infrastructure needed for the strategy formulation, planning, research, creation, editing, production and distribution of the content. He has four global teams of highly talented people who are advancing towards the world's greatest destination for content on how small businesses succeed through information technology.

Thoughts on Social Emergence and the Fallacy of Enterprise Agility

  1. Tom Austin says:


    The science of self-organizing systems is not about perpetual chaos. There are people who promote perpetual chaos and there are also total anarchists. Emergence and the science of self organizing systems is not about either.

  2. Anthony Bradley says:

    Agreed, but at the same time you can’t just expect self organizing systems to emerge on their own without some involvement. If that were the case then there would be no chaos, only self organized systems. Certainly things other than self organized systems can emerge. What is it that enables a group to self organize rather than remain unorganized or entropically devolve into chaos.? Is it something that happens by chance or can we take some actions to influence a more favorable result? I vote the latter.

  3. Tom Austin says:

    I wrote extensively (perhaps too extensively) about emergence and self organizing systems in a Gartner report last year.

    There are a broad range of conditions necessary for higher order patterns to emerge and evolve. Broad guardrails. There are a number of critical factors, e.g., density of actors and actions and transparency (traces, so folks can see what others, at least near neighbors, are doing) and so forth. So, yes, there are actions we can and should take to influence a more favorable result.

    But we can also easily overcontrol the environment and kill off any chance of new, higher order patterns emerging. To examine your words carefully, you’ve written about the need for “some level of involvement”. That’s very ambiguous. The level of involvement required may be far less than many people think it should be. Involvemet sounds to me like active intervention — a *little* bit of which is probably *very good* and a lot of which can be *very bad*.

  4. Anthony Bradley says:

    The very first line in your research note says it all, “Control is both valuable and destructive.” Although this is also ambiguous 🙂 Ambiguity is unavoidable when talking about social software in the abstract. IMO, we can only drive out the ambiguity once we know the purpose of the social application effort. Only then can you try to deliver valuable control without stifling emergence. Even then it is difficult. I beleive you must provide that purpose around which a community will form (the cause) and minimal structure to get bring participants to productivity as quickly as possible (meaning they can rapidly add value to the community). Then, if done right, you can watch emergence take over.

    I certainly agree that relatively freeform environments are necessary and that traditional control mechanisms can have the tendency to stifle emergence. I firmly believe that the more complex the challenge/opportunity the less effective central control will be and movement must be towards facilitated decentralization so that emergence can take hold. There is governance in both scenarios but th nature of that governance is very different. I espouse the precedent approach for the latter and not an approach heavily laden with predefined rules.

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