LO & The New Sciences LO5577

Mon, 12 Feb 96 13:19:52 PST

Continuing the idea in LO5380:

Michael McMaster wrote:

>The principle of "self-similarity" is what I've borrowed from
biology. This principle proposes that each element of the system
have the same basic design and variations of function even though the
specific function of that element may be unique. That is, cells of a
body at a fundamental level come from undifferentiated cells. As
they differentiate, they appear to become different - but that they
emerged from the same (appearing) cells, they are similar.

>In an organisation, this might mean that leadership, decision making,
intelligence, learning, production, etc., etc. must be elements of
each persons job or they will not get done well. Certainly, if this
is not the case, we are likely to end up with specialisation,
compartmentalisation and reductive separation and find ourselves in
an "us/them" environment.

>If you make decisions and I don't, then we
are different creatures - with all that implies.(end Quotation)

I wish to point out that self similarity is a characteristic of fractal
forms. I would like to suggest the hypothesis that long lasting,
developing learning organizations (sustainable complex adaptive systems)
have fractal characteristics. In this instance I refer to self similarity.
(In other writings I have referred to other characteristics of fractals,
found in successful organizations.)

Fractal forms are characterized by self-similarity between levels. In
regular Euclidean geometry only a straight line has this characteristic -
that part of the line is similar to the whole line. Other Euclidean
geometric objects like a sphere or a triangle are not self similar between
levels. By the way, - "similar" but not exactly the same.

Many if not most natural and living objects have this characteristic. See
waves, mountain ranges, clouds, trees, cauliflower, our brain, our nervous
system, our blood system and so on.

Self similarity is a very efficient way of structuring things in nature.
Its like a hologram. In essence it means that the same principles of
building the whole are found in the parts at different levels. A small
amount of genetic basic information can be sufficient to build an
elaborate complex structure.

Self similarity in organizations can be seen in the same way. The self
similarity can be found between different levels of an organization.

One way of understanding this is "every man a manager". Every person at
different levels of the organization sees himself as the locus of
leadership, learning, production, responsibility and decision making (as
suggested by Michael McMasters).

In the classic linear approach to organizations each level is seen as
having a different function in terms of plan-do-control. Upper echelons
are responsible for planning, lower ranks for doing and the mid layers for
control. A fractal design would take a self-similar approach and assign
the functions of plan-do-control to every level, although the subject of
plan-do-control would probably be different.

Another way of seeing self similarity is in terms of work structure.Brenda
Zuckerman and David Hurst have suggested that we can view self similarity
in organizations in terms of the way work is organized.

Work can be organized with a redundancy of parts (people). This means that
every one has his speciality. One supervizes the automatic machines,
another packs crates , one runs the crane, one checks labels, etc. And
when someone is missing (ill, etc) that person is replaced by extra labor

In redundant functions there is elasticity. People have learned each
others jobs and can replace each other when needed. Work organized around
the principal of redundant functions is seen to be self similar and the
work structure is fractal. It also appears to be an effective way of
structuring work even with increasing specialization.

Another way of seeing self similarity and fractal form in the organization
is in terms of a similar fractal dimension between different levels of the

The fractal dimension of an object expresses its degree of irregularity.
In other words the relationship between order and chaos in the object.

In organizations we can see the fractal dimension as the relationship
between order and chaos in the organization. This means on the one hand
linearity, continuity, orderliness & certainty - which allow the
organization to function in an orderly way that ensures efficiency,
organization and predictablity. And on the other hand functioning which
expresses nonlinearity and encourages innovation, change, entrepeneurship,
creativity, risk in venturing into the uncertain which ensure change,
development and renewal.

The fractal dimension expresses the relationship between these two aspects
of organizational functioning, both of which are essential for sustainable

>From this we can begin thinking about the fractal dinension of a leader
or manager's style. We can ask if the fractal dimensiion of the leaders
style suits the needs of the organization. We can ask about the fractal
dimension in a department or team etc. More than that, we can enquire
about the relationships between fractal dimensions of all levels and
function of the organization.To give the structure a fractal form there
will need to be self similarity between all of these.

So when we say an organization has self similarity in its fractal
dimension we are pointing out that the same degree of innovation,
creativity, entrepeneurship, flexibility, risk taking etc is found at all
levels of the organization.

I am interested in reactions to these ideas. I understand that I have
given them in a very summarised form. They may at first be difficult to
absorb, by people who are unfamiliar with some of the ideas of the New
Sciences. Still if you can I would appreciate reactions.

Dr. Uri Merry


Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <rkarash@karash.com> -or- <http://world.std.com/~lo/>