sitemap Whitaker: Self-Organization, Autopoiesis and Enterprises (1995): ARCHIVE EDITION
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ARCHIVE:   Self-Organization, Autopoiesis, and Enterprises (Whitaker, 1995) Enola Gaia
This is an archive edition of a web publication no longer accessible at its original location.

At the 1995 European CSCW Conference in Stockholm, I was asked to create an online essay to be hosted by ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) SIGOIS (Organizational Information Systems special interest group). The resultant set of webpages went online circa December 1995. Since then, the SIGOIS web resource that contained this material was discontinued.

Randall Whitaker

Self-Organization, Autopoiesis, and Enterprises

Randall Whitaker, PhD


'Self-organization' is a popular theme in current studies of human social activity, enterprises, and information technology (IT). This document introduces one well-developed theory of self-organization (autopoietic theory) and discusses its application to enterprises and their management.


autonomy, autopoiesis, Maturana (Humberto R.), second-order cybernetics, self-organization, Varela (Francisco J.)

The term self-organization, after decades of specialists' interest, has become an increasingly popular label for phenomena which appear to determine their own form and process(es). There is now widespread interest in applying theories of self-organization to analysis and (re-)engineering of enterprises. 'Enterprise' is used here to denote purposeful social collectives of any scale. This term is employed for two reasons: (a) it carries the dual connotation of 'the actors' and 'the activity', and (b) its usage avoids confusion with the very specific usage of the term 'organization' in the framework introduced and discussed later -- autopoietic theory.

Increasing interest in self-organization is a healthy development, insofar as it represents enterprise researchers' and practitioners' growing appreciation for three key issues or themes. These are:

  • Systemic perspectives on enterprises
    Since the origin of cybernetics in the Macy Conferences of the 1940's, reciprocal cross-pollination between engineering, management, and social scientists has fostered viewpoints of the enterprise as something 'more than merely the sum of its parts.' The value of such systemic principles is well-proven by the fact of their invocation by technocratic 'systems engineers', the 'socio-technical' proponents who claimed to supersede them, and the 'participatory design' proponents who claimed to supersede both.

  • Auto-determination of system form and function
    Enterprises are not passive and rigid units -- their configuration and their behavior evolve during the course of their operation. The precise paths of their evolution are largely determined by the enterprises themselves. This is most apparent where members of an enterprise actively plan and realize its subsequent form. Recent trends in enterprise auto-determination range from business process reengineering (BPR) through CPI and TQM to participatory design (PD).

  • Contextualization
    Late 20th Century trends in social / management science practice (e.g., action research, ethnomethodology and other qualitative approaches) have attempted to overcome the limitations of 'objectivistic' approaches by focusing on people and enterprises on their own (the subjects') terms -- who they are, where they are, and how they are. Treating complex systems as units requires careful attention to those factors which provide or qualify meaning in models of: (a) their static delineation; (b) their dynamics over time; and (c) the manner in which we as researchers study and (re-)engineer them. Examples of recent attention to context range from 'situation awareness' in human factors to Lucy Suchman's 'situated action' to the workplace-specificity of Scandinavian participatory design practices.

The current trend toward invoking 'self-organization', however, is potentially unhealthy to the extent it does no more than replace the old objectivistic tautology 'X is what it is' with a New Age version 'X is what it makes of itself'. Self-organization is a concept which must be applied with analytical rigor to be useful. Theories of self-organization were devised in response to the apparent complexities and paradoxes of natural phenomena. Perhaps not surprisingly, sloppy application of these theories can make enterprises seem even more complex and paradoxical than we already fear them to be. The notion of a system which determines itself entails a circularity of cause and effect, and one must avoid 'circular reasoning' in analyzing this circularity.

Furthermore, one should be careful with respect to the term itself. Over the years, the term 'self-organization' has been used to refer to a variety of distinct systemic attributes such as:

  • self-creation -- the notion that a given system's origin is somehow determined by its character or the specific circumstances in which it occurs.
  • self-configuration --the notion that a given system actively determines the arrangement of its constituent parts.
  • self-regulation -- the notion that a given system actively controls the course of its internal transformations, typically with respect to one or more parameters.
  • self-steering -- the notion that a given system actively controls its course of activity within some external environment or a general set of possible states.
  • self-maintenance --the notion that a given system actively preserves itself, its form, and / or its functional status over time.
  • self-(re-)production -- the notion that a given system generates itself anew or produces other systems identical to itself.
  • self-reference. -- the notion that the significance of a given system's character or behavior is meaningful only with respect to itself.

These nuances are not mutually exclusive, and authors have invoked them in varying 'mixtures'. Any approach to treating enterprises as self-organizing entities should, therefore, consider which (or how many) of these connotations are being addressed, as well as what feature(s) of the given system are being addressed as 'self-organizing' (Whitaker, 1995).

Autopoietic Theory: One Approach to Self-Organization

The remainder of this document will introduce and discuss the concept of autopoiesis, created by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980; 1987). Their work (hereafter termed autopoietic theory) concretely addresses each of the issues discussed above as follows:

  • Autopoietic theory is a 'systemic perspective', because it addresses its subjects in terms of their being formal and functional wholes.

  • Autopoietic theory provides a foundation for describing and analyzing 'auto-determination', because the central concept of autopoiesis defines living systems as self-producing units which accordingly (self-)maintain their essential form.

  • Autopoietic theory provides a specific basis for explaining and addressing 'contextualization', because it is an example of second order cybernetics -- systems-theoretic analyses which incorporate the role of an observer in defining systems.

  • Autopoietic theory avoids much of the 'unhealthy' ambiguity surrounding the idea of 'self-organization', because Maturana and Varela have formulated and extended their concepts in a quite rigorous and systematic fashion.

In the quarter century since its origin, autopoietic theory has generated considerable interest in relatively specialized circles, with most of this interest concentrated in Europe. The goals of this document are to introduce this work to a broader audience and to outline the manner in which autopoietic theory can be (and has been) employed in studying and (re-)engineering enterprises, their processes, and the information technology (IT) which supports them.

I. Overview of Autopoietic Theory

This first major section will briefly introduce you to autopoietic theory and give you a basic familiarity with the key concepts. Because the topics below are arranged in accordance with a progression of definition and conceptualization, it is recommended that you proceed in the order given.

If you are interested in learning more, I've provided you with:


II. Autopoietic Theory and Social Systems: Theory and Practice

The second major section focuses on the theoretical and practical application of Maturana and Varela's work to enterprise studies. It will provide you with (a) an overview of autopoietic-theoretical analyses of social systems generally and (b) some selected examples of autopoietic theory applied to the analysis and (re-)engineering of enterprises and their information systems.

WARNING: This section presumes a familiarity with the basic concepts and terminology of autopoietic theory as presented in the theory review.

I would like to thank ACM SIGOIS generally (and Keith Swenson and Stephen Hayne specifically) for offering me this opportunity to introduce a wider audience to autopoietic theory and its utility in enterprise studies.
-- Randall Whitaker, December 1995

Copyright 1995 Randall Whitaker. This material may be freely copied and reused, provided the author and source are cited
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