Is technology getting in the way of self-organisation?

Mark Upton
May 21, 2015

“Self-organization is not a startling new feature of the world. It is the way the world has created itself for billions of years. In all of human activity, self-organization is how we begin. It is what we do until we interfere with the process and try to control one another.”

Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers

A quick scan of twitter and blog feeds never fails to turn up the latest technology ventures trying to make an impact in sport, generally making similar statements regarding a learning/performance edge. Take this claim from a new video technology offering…

“allows athletes to gain greater insights into the finer details of what their bodies are doing when the action occurs, which helps them improve their game”

Does it really improve their game? What does the emerging evidence suggest about skill learning?

Well it strongly challenges the claim that athletes having greater focus on the fine details of their movements is beneficial for learning/performance. This is based on a key principle of complexity theory – self-organisation. Top-down control (i.e. being consciously aware of and trying to minutely control the body) can inhibit these self-organising capacities, prevent optimal coordination of body segments and ultimately hinder learning and performance. “Form follows function” is important to remember in a complex system, be it an individual player, team or organisation. There is a need for intention/purpose, whilst resisting the temptation to exert rigid control over the manner in which it will be achieved.

Interestingly, we can equally apply the principle of self-organisation to a group of people — lets say a coaching and sport science team in a football academy. Rigidly defined roles, objectives and departments imposed from above can actually inhibit the ability of this team to self-organise and coordinate their efforts around a shared purpose of player development. In fact, silos, “turf wars” and “us against them” mentalities are likely to emerge. However, these tightly defined roles and objectives (and check box assessment of them) do suit performance management technology solutions. Just as the video technology mentioned in the opening, the increasing use of these technologies, used inappropriately, may actually be hindering the coordination and functioning of the off-field team.

These 2 examples demonstrate how complexity theory principles can scale to different system levels — from an individual player, to a team, to a club, to a governing body of sport.

We are basing what we do (helping people be their best) on emerging evidence from complexity theory and ecological dynamics. We use this to help people shape their (learning) environments and, in this particular example, make good decisions regarding the utility of technology in those environments.

N.B. an important addendum to the principle of self-organisation is the role of constraints. Expertly manipulating constraints can shift a system (player, team, club, organisation) towards a more functional state. Hence the growing interest in the constraints-led approach to coaching & pedagogy — something we will cover in more depth in future posts.