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Journal of Elegant Complexity

Complexity Theory as Leadership Toolkit for Organizational Management

(Summer 2009 special issue)

By Randy Fisher

Bridging the Digital Divide: Universal Access to Education

On Valentine’s Day in 2006, a self-organizing wiki platform emerged within the Web 2.0 wave, and boldly declared its vision to widen access to education for every person on the planet (especially for learners without Internet access) and bridge the digital divide into digital dividends: by collaboratively developing a free and open version of the world’s education curriculum by 2015, in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals . As he sat at his computer, WikiEducator’s first account holder set his sights on connecting with educators, Wikipedians and future WikiEducators around the globe. By December 2007, the young project scored an impressive victory: hailed as the ‘Best Educational Wiki’ by noted e-learning opinion leader Stephen Downes. (Downes, 2007)

WikiEducator as a collaborative educational development project (supported by the Commonwealth of Learning) is rooted in a confluence of critical interdependent factors. One factor was the realization that Western business models could neither accommodate nor scale cost-effectively to meet the demands of developing nations for affordable and universal education. The reasons included: the dearth of instructional designers and teachers locally; the high cost of curriculum development and educational texts; and low wages / national incomes (as compared with developed countries). Another factor was that the lack of universal access to education was morally repugnant and indefensible: it just didn’t sit right.

“There is something fundamentally wrong with our world considering that the majority of our children will not be going to school. Consider, for example, that in Sub-Saharan Africa, 76% of the children in the age group for the last three years of high school will not have the privilege of attending school. We do not have enough money to train the teachers or build the classrooms needed to achieve universal secondary education.” (Wayne Mackintosh, 2007)

Open and Free Knowledge: A Fundamental Human Right

Restrictive copyright provisions have been a major factor, as the majority of educational materials (developed on- or off-line) are locked-down, and cannot be used or modified without permission or payment or both. For example, teachers in small villages in Ghana, are unable to (cost-effectively) localize marketing 101 materials or basic primary math texts for local use, because of various legalities, prohibitions and copyright restrictions as to how, and on what information devices the content can be used (i.e., books, cd’s, dvd, ipods, etc.).

The dialectic between restrictive copyright and open and free knowledge has been a galvanizing force for those in the Free Culture (or Free Software) Movement who believe that access to open and free knowledge is a basic human right — ranging from software to all cultural and creative works. (Lessig, 2004)

A Growing, Self-Organizing Wiki Ecosystem

As a clear manifestation of access to open and free knowledge, Wikipedia is an ecosystem, and an incredible social and complex self-organizing phenomenon. Characterized by rapid user growth and interaction and powered by an innovative and free software wiki package ~ “Mediawiki” (from the Wikimedia Foundation), it is an open and viable network of connections, relationships and content. Unlike closed software providers such as Microsoft and Apple, the programming code is ‘open’ and can be hacked and tinkered with, to improve its functioning, robustness and scalability. The program code is available for all Mediawiki sites to use, of which WikiEducator is one. “The free knowledge community now has the tools and processes to collaborate on a global scale in developing educational materials as a social good.” (Mackintosh, 2007).

KT & Self-Organization

As a self-organizing community, WikiEducator has focused completely on its primary user group: active users adding value to the wiki. (Active users are defined as educators who are formal or informal educators, or individuals who support the aims and objectives of WikiEducator and free software, cultural and creative works). If Mackintosh’s vision really had legs, then he believed the community would rally around it. If not, then it would be just another idea and the community would go elsewhere.

Experiencing SO can be positive and negative, ecstatic and painful. When observing SO behaviour, one gets a very real sense of the complex and unpredictable; the visible and the hidden energies, the competing forces and interdependent layers and patterns.

As I reflected on my own experience (“observer-self”, Wheatley, 2006), I became more sensitive to the nuances of complexity and SO. I recall my excitement with John Seely Brown’s metaphorical ‘knowledge iceberg’, where 10 per cent of knowledge is explicit and visible, and 90 per cent is tacit and invisible. (Brown, 2002). Once I recognized that I could be aware of the existence of non-visible elements and interacting agents, I could more easily let go of trying to control the outcome of a given process. Further, I was able to recognize that complex patterns did indeed exist, yet they were far less mysterious — whether they were visible or not.

Interacting Agents Seek Equilibrium

Cambridge mathematician John Conway’s ‘cellular automaton’, as manifested in The Game of Life. ( focuses attention on the beauty, elegance and emergence of self-organizing agents. Watching the Game of Life simulate SO complexity builds a peculiar confidence in a process that finds its own equilibrium, and is reminiscent of the behaviour of particle swarms (i.e., a loosely-structured collection of interacting agents within a system) in different cultures, where the patterns emerge from their interactions within the system, not by anything imposed on it. (Camazine, et al., 2001 as cited in Fontaine, 2005). The equilibrium lasts as long as the agents’ attention span.

There are striking similarities to the WikiEducator experience —palpable dynamism, energy and complex emergent behaviours within a SO wiki sytem: interacting agents around the globe connecting via clearly shared values and common interests and collaborating and co-creating in the wiki.

There are very few prescriptive rules (to be discussed later). Every individual has the opportunity to lead, and WikiEducator’s projects grow and die according to individual motivation and the community’s interests. Throughout a project’s lifecyle, leaders morph into followers, and followers morph into leaders. “Effective self-organization is supported by two critical elements: a clear sense of identity and freedom. In organizations, if people are free to make their own decisions, guided by a clear organizational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength.” (Wheatley, 2006) While it’s impossible to predict where the next project or collaboration may occur, it’s clear that the community is growing. As of April 2008, the WikiEducator website generated over 12,000 unique visitors daily, and registered 3,500 users (10% which are very active). It is on track to significantly broaden its global reach with the 2008 Learning4Content project funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning: a global initiative to train 3,500 educators from 52 Commonwealth countries (the world’s largest free wiki skills training initiative to date).

My Experience – A Win-Win Opportunity

In April 2007, I caught the wiki bug. I attended WikiEducator’s 1st Tectonic Shift Think Tank meeting that brought together an international group of thought leaders (including a contingent of hacker-programmers from New Zealand) to the Commonwealth of Learning to explore future paths for WikiEducator, Mediawiki, Free Cultural Works and eLearning for development. After a ‘eureka’ moment, I realized I could use my community-building and facilitation skills to support the WikiEducator community in achieving its goals. I created an identity as “WikiRandy”, and began devoting an hour a day help build the community by identifying areas and 3rd parties for sourcing and developing content; cross-pollinating ideas and experiences from different disciplines; and, simply facilitating connections and relationships within, and external to, the WikiEducator community. Over several months, WikiEducator’s personable and charismatic founder Wayne Mackintosh turned me onto the promise and purpose of WikiEducator - an evolving community intended for the collaborative:

  • planning of education projects linked with the development of free content;
  • development of free content on WikiEducator for e-learning;
  • building of capacity and sustainable communities of support for educators;
  • work on building open education resources (OERs) on how to create OERs;
  • networking on funding proposals developed as free content.

As I evolved in my own growth and thinking, I embraced and advocated for WikiEducator’s values of openness, freedom and inclusion. In the process, I became a trusted WikiNeighbour and helped develop WikiEducator’s formal skills certification program — all of which I never anticipated at the outset of my involvement. (Interestingly, at this time I was considering the merits of an MBA or MA in Organization Management and Development. As this emergent experience revealed its many opportunities and complexities, I decided on the MA education as the most appropriate.)

Self-Organization, Confidence and Self-Regulation

As WikiEducator’s registered user base grew steadily (about 10% of users are very active), I focused my efforts on facilitating the most active users towards developing strong dyads and clusters within the community. (The provision of said support and resources was in line with WikiEducator’s Strategy and Framework (see References). Over time, pockets of sustainable community activity coalesced through frenetic fits and starts and energetic and unpredictable internal interactions.

In April 2008, the project’s founder left for a family-imposed exile: a one month vacation without Internet access or communication with the WikiEducator community. As Father Goose left the nest, the young goslings were more on their own’ than they had previously perceived. As I observed the back and forth discussions on WikiEducator’s primary community communication channel (Google Groups), I saw considerable evidence of the rising confidence of esteemed community members; mature interaction behaviors, caring and a strengthened sense of community ownership. Through open dialogue and self-regulation, the community members were standing firm with the community’s oft-stated values of freedom and openness, and purposeful self-interest. (References: Google Groups (2008), WYSIWIG editor, OER based university). This is yielding new opportunities and complexities.

Experiencing Success

WikiEducator has enjoyed considerable success in just 14 months: 12,000 unique visitors per day, 3500+ users and a rapidly-growing user community; increasing adoption and use by educators developing free and open content; the support the Commonwealth of Learning; strategic links with UNESCO; international legitimacy on all continents; project funding from a major US charitable foundation (focusing on open education resources); a seat on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation; a robust platform for testing collaborative and open technologies; and frequent accolades for innovation and task achievement.

WikiEducator is not about ‘no organization’ per se, rather, it’s all about self-organizing activities. There is no hierarchy or center in WikiEducator: there is an innate capacity to develop capacity ~ which in itself is a true expression of participative democracy vs. representative democracy.

WikiEducator’s success is more complex than it appears. While there have been few rules, there is no single factor responsible for WikiEducator’s success, nor the development of its particle swarm culture behaviours. Clearly, it is a Complex Adaptive System comprised of visible and hidden interdependent factors that dynamically respond to and leverage each other to facilitate(and even accelerate) free and open collaboration.

A key ingredient in the project’s success is tied to the ‘Kiwi Cluster’ — the first SO community cluster within WikiEducator, comprised of folks primarily from New Zealand. (‘Kiwis’ or New Zealanders are particularly proud of their ability to solve vexing problems, and their contribution to education/e-learning (they created the Moodle Learning Management Sytem). Also of significant pride is their ingenious use of #8 Wire, which can be configured and adapted for a variety of applications.)

The Kiwi Cluster benefited from a pioneering spirit, similar to systems thinker Ibn Khaldun’s asibaya (Hudson, 2000). As a nimble, close-knit group, the Kiwi Cluster developed many workarounds with the less-than-perfect media wiki technology environment. The #8 Wire cultural legacy played a prominent role too: it bolstered the Cluster’s sense of pride; ensured a high level of motivation (Fontaine, 2005 (1)); and informed the direct experience of NZ-based Otago Polytechnic’s learning designers (putting WikiEducator through its paces) in developing a practical business case for the institution to develop and publish open educational resources on WikiEducator. (Blackall, 2007). (As background, Mackintosh had strong relationships with NZ-based educational developers, hacker-programmers and learning administrators, when he began his unofficial WikiEducator journey began as professor of e-learning in New Zealand (1998). Back then, he was developing educational technologies with a collaborative focus: a precursor to today’s wiki and social networking technologies.)

WikiEducator’s initial success factors include:

  • WikiEducator as an ecosystem operating within an ecosystem (Wikipedia), with the potential to spin off new ecosystems
  • A specific, measurable and time-limited purpose
  • Self-selected projects and roles that contribute to overall success (i.e., distributed leadership)
  • A strategic catalyst (i.e., the project founder and visionary)
  • Free Culture values underpinning the (eco)system
  • Creating free and open content – as in ‘free beer’ ~ specifically for educators (formal / informal)
  • Total Transparency (which leads to trust)
  • The Kiwi Cluster & the #8 Wire cultural legacy
  • An inclusive and user-focused community aligned to project goals and seeking affiliation and collaboration with like-minded users and organizations
  • Using open, modifiable and emergent technologies to enhance collaboration
  • Community decision-making, and few prescriptive rules or policies.
  • No value judgments on content or culture
  • Abiding by the framework and lessons of the Linux development experience (as described in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.)

Self-Organizing Systems in Organizations

As a skunkworks project that migrated to, and is now supported by an international intergovernmental agency, WikiEducator has achieved an impressive record of success. In the orbit of the Wikipedia ecosystem, it also has had to navigate skillfully in other ecosystems with different organizational cultures, structures, processes, priorities, policies and requirements.

The WikiEducator experience provides ample evidence that self-organizing and autocatalytic activities are both positive and disruptive — but they aren’t for the unprepared nor the faint of heart. Strong community values and a clear purpose are essential to harness or unleash (depending on your perspective) the enabling / supportive wiki technology which leverages the potential for mass collaboration and peer dialogue and information exchange.

Organizations bent on pursuing operating efficiencies for better quarterly results will be sorely disappointed that SO/complex adaptive systems don’t deliver results in a timely or predictable fashion. Moreover, organizational cultures which don’t understand the ‘complexity’ of dynamic SO systems can risk more than project failure — as their stakeholders realize that their ‘innovation’ is only skin-deep. Open systems require different decision-making structures and processes; greater transparency and a willingness to share control —which may be more than an organization is willing to accommodate, even over the short-term.

The Control Paradox

The paradox of control is that you have to give up control to gain greater control. Unfortunately, this paradox can be as much a mindset as it threat to established reality and control processes. For example, it is hard to imagine a military or civil defense organizations giving up control over its command-and-control processes, even if there could be a better, more reliable outcome. With the terrible government emergency response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (and the concomitant, albeit successful civilian SO efforts), there is increasing impetus for “creating a new, alternative emergency management approach capitalizing on a combination of new communications technology and the science of social networks and “swarm intelligence” that is fundamentally better matched to the circumstances encountered in disasters. The hallmarks of such a strategy would be flexibility, ease of incorporating situational awareness into decision-making, and the ability of anyone available after a catastrophe to create ad hoc strategies with available resources.” (Bonabeau et al., 2007)

In my personal experience, I gave up secrecy and control in developing my Master’s Project topic and published it openly on WikiEducator. (Fisher, 2007). Unexpectedly, I received invaluable feedback from a community member who challenged my thinking and approach. (Mackintosh, 2007). This feedback enabled me to save time, sharpen my focus and apply my research energies differently. By openly sharing my educational research interests, I was also able to strengthen my status / reputation in the community, and develop a future resource for additional input, feedback and perspective.

In terms of organizational management, a wiki-approach could be of considerable benefit in establishing common ground; establishing and strengthening relationships; and fostering effective communications and problem-solving between functional areas in organizations (i.e,, research and development and marketing) and siloed departments. (Pascale, Milleman & Gioja (2000)

Situational Roles, Organizational Rules

My discussion with Fielding colleague Hollie Hirst, brought out the importance of situational leadership within the wiki and organizations too. In the open wiki, anyone can be a leader, and different people bring different and valuable knowledge, skills and abilities. In organizations, there are significantly greater limits on who can lead (the focus being more on ‘leadership behaviours). In either case, it is important to ensure a supportive and accepting environment where people are valued for their talents and contributions. Mackintosh’s role as a charismatic visionary to layperson and hacker-programmer alike (Raymond, 2000) and strategic catalyst has been critical in attracting key people and resources, and guiding WikiEducator in alignment with its strategy, framework and community values. At least 3,500 registered users and many others have had an impact on how the community has been able to grow and achieve critical mass. For organizations, all stakeholders (i.e., executives, managers, line staff, suppliers, customers, investors, etc.) can play myriad roles at different times with varying impact too. Opening up the organization to consider alternate stakeholder roles can herald opportunity, challenge and unpredictability — with the potential for breakthrough ideas and fear and resistance, and a pervasive sense of (gaining or losing) control.

Many organizations have a plethora of rules, policies and procedures which get in the way of innovation, creativity and transparency. Organizations and project teams can look closely at the WikiEducator model of one explicit rule (a user registration system) and several implicit ones (i.e., focus on community values) and its key success factors — and find the appropriate level of customization and adaptation for an organization’s environment, objectives, people and cultural identity. Wikinomics, YouTube and Facebook and the success of Linux also offers lessons for organizational success and market dominance in a world operating by new rules, accelerating change and a great deal of complexity and unpredictability.

Learning from Experience — Yours & Others

A monumental lesson from the wiki culture, is that you have to experience it to really know it. You have to try it in your environment and culture to see how it fits, what energies it creates and releases, and what happens. Mastery comes from those who try, observe and reflect.

Today’s organizations, whether traditional or not, interact in a complex, unconventional world. They would do well to heed the lessons Eric Raymond’s seminal work about the subversive qualities of Linux, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. (Raymond, 2000), just as Wayne Mackintosh has.

“Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew. Linus Torvald’s style of development — release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity — came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here — rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seeming emerge only by a succession of miracles.” (Raymond, 2000)

For many organizations, the bazaar is bizarre. And it’s here to stay. Until of course, something new or old emerges from the complex adaptive system.


By creating scaleable, modifiable and reusable digital knowledge assets aligned to the values of the Free Culture Movement; using Wikipedia as a baseline ecosystem and swarms of Wikipedians as engaged, evangelical user-consumers; implementing the Linux / hacker-culture lessons of The Cathedral and the Bazaar; and leveraging its rapid international legitimacy and organic successes, WikiEducator has broken new ground. It has facilitated a mass collaborative self-organizing system for universal access to education, and in the process created a useful example (there’s no such thing as ‘best practices’) for forward-thinking organizations to consider their own self-organizing options, challenges and rewards.


Bonabeau, Eric and W. David Stephenson (2007). Expecting the Unexpected: The Need for a Networked Terrorism and Disaster Response Strategy, in Homeland Security Affairs, February 2007, Volume III, Issue 1. Brown, John Seely (2002). The Social Life of Learning: How Can Continuing Education Be Reconfigured in the Future,

Camazine, S., Deneubourg, J.L., Franks, N.R., Theraulaz, G., and Bonabeau, E. (2001). Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fontaine, Gary (2005). Motivations for Going International: Profiles of Asian and American Foreign Study Students, Cross-Cultural Management Students and Global Managers, International Journal of Management.

Fontaine, Gary (2005). A Self-Organization Perspective on the Impace of Local verses Global Assignment Strategies and Knowledge Building., in International Journey of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, Volume 5 2005 / 2006.

Gardner, Martin (1970). Mathematical Games: The fantastic combinations of John Conway’s new solitaire game “life” in Scientific American 223, pp. 120-123

Hudson, Barclay (2000). Ibn Khaldun, Historian As Systems Thinker, paper presented at Temenos Conference on Systems Thinking, Philadelphia, June 22-25, 2000.

Lessig, Lawrence (2004). How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, The Penguin Press, 2004.

Mackintosh, Wayne (2007). Turning the Digital Divide into Digital Dividends, Wikimedia Foundation blog post, November 27, 2007 -

Pascale, T., Millemann, M., Gioja, L. (2000). Surfing the edge of chaos: The laws of nature and the new laws of business. New York, Three Rivers Press.

Raymond, Eric S. (2000). The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Version 3.0 Thyrsus Enterprises [1]

Tapscott, Don and Anthony Williams (2006). Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York, Portfolio, 2006.

Waldrop, M. W. (1992). Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, Simon and Schuster

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler

Websites, Blogs

Bitstorm – Game of Life (based on John Conway’s cellular automaton,

Blackall, Leigh (2007). Educational Development at Otago Polytechnic, on Terra Incognita, Penn State World Campus blog, November 29, 2007 ,

Downes, Stephen (2007). WikiEducator as Best Educational Wiki in Half an Hour blog, December 2007 post -

Fisher, Randy (2007). Perceptual Barriers to Using Open Educational Resources, in WikiEducator,

Hock, Dee. Future Positive blog post, entitled “Leader Follower” -$173

Mackintosh, Wayne (2007). Initial Thoughts on Research Outline, in WikiEducator,

UN Millennium Development Goals,

WikiEducator’s Community Values,