Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, May 2004

Knowledge Management In Self-Organizing Social Systems

Christian Fuchs, Institute of Design and Technology Assessment, Vienna University of Technology


Talking about knowledge means talking about the self-organization of society and social systems. Knowledge is a threefold process of cognition, communication, and co-operation. How can knowledge be managed in a self-organizing system? Scientists like Hayek and Luhmann have argued that human intervention into self-organizing social systems isn’t possible and desirable because their can be no central control of their knowledge. Hence human beings would have to rely on competition and adaptation to systemic effects, human intervention would be harmful. I consider participatory systems design as an attractive alternative to such a systemic fatalism. If one considers human beings as central moments of social self-organization, one can argue that knowledge management is a fundamental human activity that transforms social systems. Social systems can’t be hierarchically steered, but fostering co-operation and participation in processes of social systems design can increase the possibility that social systems develop into purposeful systems. Co-operation and participation allow the shared usage of the knowledge of a system’s participants. Creative synergies can arise from communicative actions and result in novelty and innovation.

1.         Introduction: Foundations Of A Theory of Social Self-Organization

The aim of this paper is to point out some implications of considering social systems as self-organizing knowledge systems for the notion of knowledge management. For doing so, I will first point out some foundations of a theory of social self-organization (section 1), then I will discuss the relationship of self-organization and knowledge management (section 2), and will make some conclusions (section 3).

Social analysis has to begin with individuals producing in a society, i.e. the existence of living human individuals. The active human being is the component or element of a social system. We term the self-organization of social systems “re-creation”. Societal structures don’t exist externally to, but only in and through human agency. By interaction of human actors, new social qualities and structures can emerge that cannot be reduced to the individual level. This is a process of bottom-up emergence that is called agency. Emergence in this context means the appearance of at least one new systemic quality that cannot be reduced to the elements of the system. So this quality is irreducible and it is also to a certain extent unpredictable, i.e. time, form and result of the process of emergence cannot be fully forecasted by taking a look at the elements and their interactions. Structures also influence individual actions and thinking. They constrain and enable actions. This is a process of top-down emergence where new individual and group properties can emerge. The whole cycle is the basic process of systemic societal self-organization that can also be called re-creation because by permanent processes of agency and constraining/enabling a system can maintain and reproduce itself (see Fig. 1). This model of social self-organisation was first introduced in Hofkirchner (1998) and elaborated in a number of further works such as Fuchs (2002a, b; 2003a-h, 2004a, b; Fuchs/Hofkirchner, 2003a, b, 2004; Fuchs/Hofkirchner/Klauninger, 2002; Fuchs/Schlemm, 2004). It again and again creates its own unity and maintains itself. Societal structures enable and constrain actions as well as individuality and are a result of actions (which are a correlation of mutual individuality that results in sociality).

Fig. 1.: The self-organization of social systems

Re-creation denotes that individuals that are parts of a system permanently change their joint environment. This enables the system to change, maintain, adapt and reproduce itself. What is important is that the term re-creation also refers to the ability of all humans to consciously shape and create systems and structures, an ability that is based on self-consciousness and, in Anthony Giddens’ (1984) terminology, the reflexive monitoring of action. Societal systems are re-creative ones because they can create new reality, the socio-cultural human being has the ability to create the conditions for his further evolution all by himself. Creativity means the ability to create something new that seems desirable and helps to achieve defined goals, it’s a central feature of communicative action. The mutual productive process of re-creation describes the reflexive, self-referential nature of society in which structures are medium and outcome of social actions (Giddens, 1984: 25f, for the relationship of Giddens’ theory of structuration and social self-organization see Fuchs, 2003c).

Erich Jantsch says social systems are re-creative ones because they can create new reality (Jantsch, 1979: 305), the socio-cultural human being has the ability to create the conditions for his further evolution all by himself (343). Creativity means the ability to create something new that seems desirable and helps to achieve defined goals. By anticipating the future and creating new reality, social systems transcend themselves (self-transcendence). Man can create images of the future and actively strive to make these images become social reality. Individuals can anticipate possible future states of the world, society as it could be or as one would like it to become; and they can act according to these anticipations. Man has ideals, visions, dreams, hopes and expectations which are based on the ability of imagination which helps him to go beyond existing society and to create alternatives for future actions. Based on creativity, man designs society (see Banathy, 1996): Design is a future-creating human activity that goes beyond facticity, creates visions of a desirable future and looks for a solution to existing problems. Design creates new knowledge and findings. Man designs machines, tools, theories, social systems, physical entities, nature, organizations etc. within social processes. Such an understanding of design as a fundamental human capability takes into account man’s ability to have visions and utopias and to actively shape society according to these anticipated (possible) states of the world. It is opposed to an understanding of design as a hierarchical process and as the expert-led generation of knowledge about the world and solutions to problems. As Ernst Bloch (1986) pointed out, desires, wishes, anxieties, hopes, fantasies, imaginations play an important role in society and hence one should also stress the subjective, creative dimension in the constitution of human and social experience. Bloch has shown that hopes and utopias are fundamental motives in all human actions and thinking. These are also important differences between animals and humans.

Terming the self-organization of society re-creation acknowledges as outlined by Giddens the importance of the human being as a reasonable and knowledgeable actor in social theory. Giddens himself has stressed that the duality of structure has to do with re-creation: “Human social activities, like some self-reproducing items in nature, are recursive. That is to say, they are not brought into being by social actors but continually recreated by them via the very means whereby they express themselves as actors“ (Giddens, 1984, p. 2).

The information concept helps us to grasp the dynamics of self-organizing systems. Information is a process that exists as a relationship between specific self-organized units of matter, it is a relationship of reflection between a fluctuation that causes inner-systemic changes and the system’s structure. A certain fluctuation causes nonlinear changes in the system, i.e. new order in the system emerges, the system changes its structure due to interactions of its elements. The fluctuating instability is reflected within the system’s components, their relationships, and interactions. Reflection means that the system reacts to fluctuations and reproduces fluctuations in its inner structure as self-organized change. Information is not a structure given in advance, it is produced within material relationships. Reflection doesn’t mean that an outside reality is mechanically copied or reproduced within the system, it means that a complex, nonlinear relationship between cause and effect is established in a self-organizing social system. All self-organizing systems are information-producing systems.

In the case of a social system, we speak of knowledge as the social manifestation of information and the units of organized matter are active human (individual or collective) actors (Fuchs/Hofkirchner, 2004). Knowledge is neither purely a subjective cognitive attribute nor purely an objective entity, it is a process and relationship between active human agents that participate in a self-organizing social system and co-ordinate their subjective knowledge in such a way that objective knowledge emerges. Knowledge is a manifestation of information in social systems that involves the interpretation, evaluation, and usage of data and can be found in various subsystems of society. It is a threefold process of cognition, communication, and co-operation (ibid.). Cognition refers to the individual dimension, that is, to the elements of social systems, communication refers to the interactional dimension, co-operation to the integrational dimension, that is, to the social system itself that is constituted by the interaction of its elements.

The brain enables the subjective knowledge production of human beings (cognition). Cognition is a human activity and stands in relationship with an outside environment that is constructively reflected. Based on cognition, human beings enter social relationships where they communicate and co-operate in order to produce objectified knowledge structures that interact with and are mutually coupled to their subjective knowledge. Structures are totalities of durable and institutionalized behaviour. They can be found in all subsystems of society. Structures mediate communications and actions, they are medium and outcome of actions and communications. Structures are social relationships and objective knowledge in society. Social knowledge is a communicative relationship between actors where artefacts are included in order to produce sense and achieve goals. Knowledge as an organized form of data that are interpreted, assessed and compared, is contained in artefacts and social relationships. Artefacts store dead labour and knowledge about society, collective social actors (organizations) are an expression of the durable connectivity of human beings, they are shared spaces of living and working, and incorporate both interacting human actors and artefacts that the latter make use of. Social structures are media of society because they mediate social actions and communications. They store and fix knowledge and hence they simplify actions and communications because the foundations of these processes don’t have to be newly produced permanently, they can be achieved by making use of structures. Hence by storing knowledge, social structures reduce social complexity. Structures are carriers of knowledge, they are the foundation of temporal and spatial extension of social systems. Social structures make possible a continuity of social reproduction across space and time, they result in the temporal and spatial distanciation of social relationships without the loss of continuity. Social structures are storage capacities in society which enable the existence of institutional forms which persists across generations and shape past experiences that date back well beyond the life of any particular individual. Structures also produce specific forms of contiguousness and hence they dissolve distances by reembedding social relationships that are disembedded in space-time. Social structures are a foundation of action and communication, they enable a certain degree of mobility, they mediate, organize, and co-ordinate social relationships and communications.

In re-creative, i.e. social systems, self-organization produces what can be termed objective social knowledge: The word "social" in the term that such a form of knowledge is constituted in the course of social relationships of several human actors. We consider the scientific-technological infrastructure, the system of life-support elements in the natural environment and all else that makes sense in a society, i.e. economic property, political decision power, and the body of cultural knowledge, norms and values to be objective social knowledge. So we can distinguish five different types of objective social knowledge: ecological knowledge, technological knowledge, economic knowledge, political knowledge, and cultural knowledge. These forms store knowledge about past social actions and simplify future social situations because by referring to social knowledge the basics of acting socially do not have to be formed in each such situation. Objective social knowledge can be seen as a durable foundation of social actions that nonetheless changes dynamically.

On the informational level social self-organization is a threefold process of cognition, communication, and communication. These three moments form interrelated aspects of knowledge as a productive process that is based on a dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity. When two human systems interact (see fig. 2), they enter an objective relationship, i.e. a (mutual) causal relationship is established. A portion of subjective, systemic knowledge (“cognition”) is communicated from system A to system B (and vice versa, “communication”). The cognitve structural patterns that are stored in neural networks within the brains of individual human agents can be termed subjective knowledge. Human actors are knowledgeable beings. Communicating knowledge from one system to another causes structural changes in the receving system. If there is a knowledge relationship between the two systems, it is determined that there will be causal interactions and structural effects. The structure of the systems (structural, subjective knowledge) changes, but we don’t know to which extent this will actually be the case, which new subjective knowledge will emerge, how knowledge structures will be changed etc. There are degrees of autonomy and freedom (=chance). If structural changes in system B take place and are initiated by system A, this means an objectification of subjective knowledge of A in B from the point of view of A. From the point of view of B it means subjectification of objective knowledge from its environment. In a communication process, this also takes place the other way round. As a result of communication it cannot only be the case that an objectification of knowledge in some of the involved systems takes place, it can also be the case that due to the synergies between the systems new qualities (knowledge) emerge in their shared environment (“co-operation”). Structural, subjective knowledge of the involved systems is co-ordinated, synergies arise and hence something new is produced commonly in a self-organization process. The new structure or system that arises is an objectification of (parts of the) subjective knowledge of the involved systems. Knowledge in self-organizing social systems has cognitive (subjective), communicative (new subjective knowledge (=cognitive structures) emerges in systems due to interaction) and co-operative aspects (interaction results in synergies that cause the emergence of new, objectified knowledge in the shared environment of the involved systems).

Fig. 2: A model of knowledge as a threefold process of cognition, communication,

and co-operation in social systems

In knowledge management research a distinction between data, information, and knowledge is made (cf. e.g. Willke, 2001: 7-18): Data is considered as a coded resource of operations, it is transformed into information when it is integrated into a relevant context where it makes a difference as a difference, it gains relevance and meaning relative to an integrating system. Information is transformed into knowledge when it is integrated into a context of experience. Knowledge is information embedded into experience. Such a distinction fails to identify a concept that generalizes all three forms, it is only interested in specific aspects, not in the common aspects that integrate these forms. We suggest that information is a general concept that can be found in all self-organizing physical, biological, and social systems. In knowledge management information is confined to the social realm, this is a narrow concept of information. In a human living system, data is a manifestation of information, when it is interpreted and integrated into the cognitive system it is transformed into knowledge, knowledge that is embedded into practical experienced situations is transformed into practical knowledge. Hence we suggest that the triad is not data-information-knowledge, but data-knowledge-practical knowledge as a manifestation of information in the human realm. 

2.         Self-Organization And Knowledge Management

Knowledge management seems to arise as a fundamental task of the knowledge-based society. I will first clarify what a knowledge-based society is (2.1.), then I will argue that connecting the notion of self-organization with the one of knowledge management can be done in two distinct ways. One is a functionalistic one that puts forward a systemic fatalism (2.2.), the alternative is one that stresses the role of the human being as a creative actor in social systems (2.3.).

2.1.      The Knowledge-Based Society

All social structures store knowledge about society, they contain a history of social relationships, reduce the complexity of society, and enable future actions. All societies are based on human activity that produces subjective and objective knowledge. Hence all societies are knowledge societies. But not all societies are knowledge-based societies (KBS). This term is reserved to characterize a social formation that is shaped by a specific type of knowledge, scientific and technological knowledge, in all its realms. The emergence of the knowledge-based society is a multidimensional shift that involves the rise of knowledge as strategic resource in all societal areas. All human labour is based on a dialectical interconnection of mind and body. Hence all labour is both mental labour and manual labour. But nonetheless there is a difference: mental labour mainly based on cognition, reflection, logical operations, etc., manual labour on the human production of physical energy. In the KBS knowledge in the sense of the cognitive foundation of mental labour (subjective knowledge) and the products of mental labour (objective knowledge) has become besides physical labour, capital, property, and power the central productive force of modern society. This manifests itself e.g. in a boom of service and knowledge industries, an increasing importance of innovation, universities, expertise, research, knowledge work, knowledge products. The first phase of capitalist development was based on extensive technological development, the quantity of technology, labour, and capital applied in the production process was steadily increased, but technology only changed slowly. In knowledge-based capitalism there is an intensive technological development that is based on a series of fast qualitative technological innovations. We today live in knowledge-based society in the sense that knowledge products, scientific expertise and computer-based technologies as forms that are an expression of mental labour have become immediate forces of production that influence and change all subsystems of society. The increased knowledge-based character of society is due to the rising importance of expertise, scientific knowledge and knowledge-based technologies.

Some important basic characteristics of knowledge are:

·         Knowledge is a manifestation of information in the human-social realm. Knowledge doesn’t exist in nature as such, it is a human and cultural product.

·         Knowledge exists both in the human brain and in social structures and artefacts. It has subjective and objective aspects that are mutually connected. Subjective and objective knowledge is constituted in social practices of active, knowledgeable human beings, knowledge is related to human practice.

·         Objective knowledge is stored in structures and enables time-space distanciation of social relationships. It reduces the complexity of social systems, foundations of human existence don’t have to be re-produced permanently due to this storage-function. Objective knowledge is a supra-individual structural entity, but is based on human agency, it is medium and outcome of social actions, it constrains and enables human practices.

·         Individually acquired knowledge can be put to use efficiently by entering a social co-ordination and co-operation process. Synergetical advantages that can’t be achieved on an individual basis can be gained by such a co-ordination of knowledge. Emergent knowledge and qualities show up and are due to the synergies produced by the co-operating efforts of knowledgeable actors. Intelligent organizations are based on the effective use and management of emergent knowledge.

·         Knowledge must be permanently enhanced and updated

·         Knowing is intrinsically coupled to not knowing.

·         Knowledge has relevance for a system and is constituted within and part of human experiences .

·         Knowledge is a social, common, public good that has a historical character. Knowledge production is a social process, in order to produce new knowledge one must refer to prior knowledge produced by others. Frequently knowledge production has a highly networked and co-operative character. Knowledge is a self-expanding resource, but can only be artificially transformed into a scarce resource (e.g. by Intellectual Property Rights).

·         Public knowledge gains importance when its distributed freely in high numbers, proprietary knowledge looses importance when the same happens to it.

·         Knowledge is a non-substantial good that is generally not used up by its manifold usage.

·         Knowledge expands during its usage.

·         Knowledge can be compressed.

·         Knowledge can replace other economic resources.

·         By making use of fast technological networks knowledge can be transported at the speed of light.

·         Purchasers of knowledge only buy copies of the original data.

·         The costs of reproducing knowledge are generally very low and are further diminished by technological innovations and progress.

·         In contrast to capital, knowledge appreciates with use, its marginal utility increases with its use.

Social systems in the KBS are characterized by:

·         a high degree of flexibility and complexity

·         a networked character

·         an increasing global character

·         dynamic communication

·         complex knowledge patterns

The central question that arises is how one can cope with this increased knowledge-based character and complexity of organizations in order to guarantee the efficiency of an institution and the well-being of its members? Can knowledge systems be managed? And if so, what are basic guiding principles of knowledge management?

2.2.      Against Systemic Fatalism

The central question that arises is how one can cope with this increased knowledge-based character and complexity of organizations in order to guarantee the efficiency of an institution and the well-being of its members? Can knowledge systems be managed? And if so, what are basic guiding principles of knowledge management?

One answer to these questions has been that all forms of human intervention should be minimized because intervention would be harmful and would produce problems. Such arguments have e.g. been put forward by Friedrich August von Hayek and Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann has argued that society is functionally differentiated which means that each subsystem self-organizes autonomously and is controlled by an internal logic. Hence it wouldn’t be possible for a single system to control or steer other systems.

Hayek distinguishes two types of orders: spontaneous, self-forming orders which he calls kosmos, and deliberately arranged and planned orders which he calls taxis. All cultural (and natural) evolution would be a process of continuous adaptation to unforeseeable events and contingent circumstances. Social development would due to the complexity of social relationships be something that is largely determined by chance, it would be “unavoidably unpredictable” (Hayek, 1988: 25). Hayek emphasises a spontaneous nature of society. He distinguishes two types of orders: spontaneous, self-forming orders which he calls kosmos, and deliberately arranged and planned orders which he calls taxis. The first type of order couldn’t be designed because complexity and knowledge would be created permanently by people making many decisions independently from each other according to their own purposes. The market would spontaneously and undesignedly co-ordinate the activities in such a way that order is created. Some actors would gain economic and competitive advantages, but these advantages would be communicated to others over the market, this would allow them to adapt to these changes. This would advance evolution. Evolution would happen spontaneously, not in a humanly guided way. Evolution would be a “self-ordering process of adaptation to the unknown” (Hayek, 1988: 76).

“The information that individuals or organisations can use to adapt to the unknown is necessarily partial, and is conveyed by signals (e.g., prices) through long chains of individuals, each person passing on in modified form a combination of streams of abstract market signals. Nonetheless, the whole structure of activities tends to adapt, through these partial and fragmentary signals, to conditions foreseen by and known to no individual. […] The market is the only known method of providing information enabling individuals to judge comparative advantages of different uses or resources of which they have immediate knowledge and through whose use, whether they so intend or not, they serve the needs of distant unknown individuals” (Hayek, 1988: 76f). In the extended order, most ends of actions wouldn’t be conscious or deliberate. Anonymous competitive market activities would result in “synergetic collaboration” (80) that makes use of dispersed knowledge in order to generate order and enhance productivity. “The efforts of millions of individuals in different situations, with different possessions and desires, having access to different information about means, knowing little or nothing about one another’s particular needs, and aiming at different scales of ends, are coordinated by means of exchange systems. As individuals reciprocally align with one another, an undersigned system of higher order of complexity comes into being, and a continuous flow of goods and services is created that, for a remarkably high number of the participating individuals, fulfils their guiding expectations and values” (Hayek, 1988: 95). Activities of single individuals would benefit other individuals whom they don’t know and will never meet. “When the market tells an individual entrepreneur that more profit is to be gained in a particular way, he can both serve his own advantage and also make a larger contribution to the aggregate” (ibid.: 99).

Man could neither create nor design the extended order by reason. The fatal conceit would be the assumption “that man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes” (Hayek, 1988: 27). Decentralised mechanisms like markets would allow the fullest exploitation of dispersed knowledge, central planning or active design would imply a central actor overseeing all social knowledge. But such perfect knowledge would be impossible. Co-operation, solidarity and altruism would be impossible in an extended order because there would be a high complexity of dispersed, uncontrollable knowledge and social relationships. Human beings could best achieve their ends by “relying on the self-ordering forces of nature”, hence they should keep from deliberately trying to arrange elements. “For in fact we are able to bring about an ordering of the unknown only by causing it to order itself” (83). “Most defects and inefficiencies” of spontaneous orders would result from “attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results” (84).

It is a mistake to assume that order can best be achieved by fully unconscious, spontaneous, chance effects of individual actions and that hence conscious co-operative co-ordination of social activities is impossible in modern society and should be fully replaced by anonymous competition mediated by market forces. Hayek does not take into account that the human being is a knowledgeable, conscious, social being that has to enter social relationships and must try to consciously change nature and culture together with others according to their common wishes in order to survive. Without successful attempts of conscious co-ordination, society wouldn’t be possible. Without social mediation, individual existence wouldn’t be possible. Hayek overemphasizes individual being and neglects the social character and shaping of all individual thinking and actions. Conscious, goal-directed production is a necessary condition for individual and social being, the human being must consciously identify goals that he wants to achieve and produce means in order to achieve these goals. This is both a conscious and social process. Human existence is purposeful existence, the conscious and purposeful production of a natural and social environment delimits the human world from the animal world.

Methodological individualism reduces society to individual being-in-itself or abstract, pure-being and doesn’t take into account that society means also being-for-another/ determinate-being, as well as the unity of both aspects as being-in-and-for-itself. Methodological individualism doesn’t see the necessarily societal and material interdependence of individuals and doesn’t grasp their process of development because it limits itself to advise them that they should proceed from themselves, it doesn’t adequately reflect the real conflicts in the world, and it reduces sociality to individuality.  “The methodological individualists are wrong in so far as they claim that social categories can be reduced to descriptions in terms of individual predicates” (Giddens, 1984: 220). Pierre Bourdieu stresses in opposition to individualism that social order is not a simple mechanical addition of individual orders (Bourdieu, 1990: 139; 1986: 483).

Hayek’s reductionistic misconception of society results in the assumption that all conscious action is harmful and that hence the human being should not intervene into social structures. This concept can be characterized as systemic fatalism. This hypothesis doesn’t see that all social development depends on permanent creative human agency and that the self-organisation of society is not something that happens simply blindly and unconsciously, but depends on conscious, knowledgeable agents and creative social relationships that result in actions that have both planned and unintended consequences. Human beings try to act purposeful, society is only possible by ontological security that is based on the routinization of actions and is made to happen by the actors’ reflexive monitoring their actions. The routinisation of actions is a necessary condition for the reproduction and persistence of institutions and social systems. Human beings are frequently successful in achieving their consciously anticipated and defined aims, without such success society wouldn’t be possible. Social actions have both intended and unintended consequences. Society is a complex system that can’t be fully planned, its development can’t be fully forecasted. But this doesn’t mean that human beings can’t act in certain ways in order to increase the possibility that certain developments will be realised and others won’t be realised. Human beings can’t steer the development of society, but they can design the context of complex social systems. Actors indeed can’t fully plan the consequences of their actions, but it is also not the case that they can not at all successfully plan certain actions and aspects of social life and hence shouldn’t try to do it. Society is only possible as interplay of chance and necessity, unintended and intended consequences of actions, spontaneous and routinized agency.

It is wrong to assume that co-operation means centralization and that competition means decentralization. Centralization can be defined in systemic terms as the control of resources and power by one or several specific subsystems of society. This implies an asymmetric distribution of resources and power, advantages of the centralising subsystem at the expense of other subsystems. Co-operation is a networking activity that tries to combine the knowledge of human beings in such a way that synergies arise from their interactions. Co-operative systems have a decentralized and networked character, whereas heavy competition implies heteronomy and the central domination of certain subsystems.

All social systems are human action systems. This means that human actors are not outside observers of society, they are active, creative participants in social systems. All systemic evolution is based on human activity. Luhmann conceives social self-organization as a self-referential mechanism where communication produces communication. Hence science is conceived as a specific self-organizing system that uses the binary code true/false for maintaining its autopoiesis. The main problem with this approach is that it is a type of structural functionalism that doesn’t take into account the importance of knowledgeable, creative, active human beings in society (cf. Fuchs, 2002a, 2003c). If one wants to consider a social system as autopoietic or self-referential, the permanent (re)production of the elements by the system is a necessary condition. Luhmann argues that individual human beings are not permanently produced, hence the elements of a social system would have to be communications. In Luhmann’s theory, communication in a social system is both element and structure, there is no duality of structure and action, only communication as a self-referential monad. But a communication is not a subject, a communication doesn’t produce communications, only human beings produce communications that cause reactions and the further production of communications by other human beings. Hence the assumption of a duality between structure and action seems to be a necessary condition for adequately describing self-referential, circular causal, reflexive processes in a social system.

Summing up this section of the paper it can be said that scientists like Hayek and Luhmann have argued that human intervention into self-organizing social systems isn’t possible and desirable because there can be no central control of their knowledge. Hence human beings would have to rely on competition and adaptation to systemic effects, human intervention would be harmful.  I consider participatory systems design as an attractive alternative to such a systemic fatalism.

2.3.      An Alternative Vision: Co-operation And Participation As Principles of Knowledge Management In The Sense Of Social Systems Design

Social self-organization means the permanent production of knowledge by human beings, i.e. the permanent communication and co-operation in social systems is a dynamic process that human beings organize in social relationships in order to enable their own social self-reproduction and systemic self-reproduction. Hence knowledge management is a fundamental human process in the sense that human beings permanently have to co-ordinate their cognition, communication, and co-operation in social relationships.

Knowledge in social system is based on cognition, communication, and co-operation. These activities can only be achieved in social co-ordination processes of active, creative human subjects. Hence knowledge production can only be explained if we assume that human beings are creative and active beings that have the capability of permanently producing novelty in social processes as emergent results of social systems. If knowledge implies creativity and social relationships this means that full creativity of a system can only be realized if active participation of all members of a social system is encouraged. Hence knowledge also has ethical implications, a fully knowledge-based society is a participatory society. Participation allows a effective usage of the knowledge of human beings in such a way that they can share and jointly co-ordinate their knowledge in order to produce new knowledge. Sharing and  communicating knowledge in order to co-operate allows creative synergies between human beings that result in the emergence of new knowledge in a system. Sharing, partnership, and co-operation also seem to be ethical imperatives for a sustainable and participatory management of knowledge that allows benefits for all members of an organization.

Due to the increasing complexity of organizations, new strategies of coping with knowledge seem to be necessary. I suggest that participation and co-operation as aspects of social systems design are important mechanisms of knowledge management. Design is the bottom-up-initiation of change in social systems, it is a fundamental human activity that it is based on visions of a better future and anticipations of possible futures. Design is an evolving process that permanently integrates new knowledge about the world that is based on experiences in nature and society. It creates new emergent properties in social systems. Social systems are complex and networked, hence social problems can’t be broken down into small pieces that are solved independently. Problems need to be solved in an integrated manner that takes a look at social systems as interconnected wholes. The self-organization of social systems is based on the creativity of social systems, hence Erich Jantsch has called such systems re-creative. This means that human beings are active parts of social systems and that they can actively create new reality in these systems. Bela Banathy (1996) has distinguished between systematic design that is based on linear methods from systemic design that is based on intuition, feedback, nonlinearity and considers each system as unique. A participatory knowledge management must be based on systemic design methodologies.

Participatory systems design is based on collective visions of a better future for a system. Hence the participants in an organization that should be improved should formulate common visions. Creativity is the ability to produce novelty that emerges from human co-operation, it is the innovative usage of knowledge. An ideal system can only be designed based on the collective, creative, anticipatory usage of the knowledge of all participants in a system. Co-operatively discussing problems and visions in a social system is the first step for solving these problems. Formulating visions means the production of new knowledge as possible solutions to problems. After formulating a collective vision, this vision can be operationalized, a model of the future organization can be worked out and implemented, i.e.  ways of trying to manage chaos with the help of these visions can be realized.

Knowledge creates non-knowledge, in the KBS this dynamic is of special importance because scientific-technological progress results in a number of unpredictable uncertainties of development, i.e. modernization risks. These risks threaten to get out of control, Helmut Willke speaks in this context of a crisis of knowledge (Willke, 2002). The increased influence of scientific-technological knowledge on our lives has resulted in an increased fragility of society and nature (Stehr, 1994). Risks arise a side-effects of a form of modernization that is “blind and deaf to […] [its] own effects and threats” (Beck, 1994a: 6), the KBS is a high risk society. Ulrich Beck argues that side-effects of modernization like the destructive power of modern technologies and environmental degradation are an expression of non-knowledge. Non-knowledge would be the medium of reflexive modernization (Beck, 1994b, 1996). The more modern a society, the more knowledge-based and risk-intensive it would become (Beck, 1996). There would be two forms of non-knowledge: something that one doesn’t want to know (Nicht-Wissen-Wollen) and something that one can’t know (Nicht-Wissen-Können) (ibid.: 300, 302). Further dimensions of non-knowledge would be selective reception and distribution, uncertainty of knowledge, and mistakes/errors. All decisions in late modern society would be confronted with uncertainty, even expert knowledge. But to a certain extent one could try to manage risks by reflecting non-knowledge, learning to know that and what one can’t know and avoiding not wanting to know (ibid: 309). Knowledge would be dependent on modernization risks. Many of the new dangers would not be immediately visible (e.g. radioactivity). To become visible the perceptive organs of science would be needed to produce knowledge about risks. “In this way threat situations create social dependencies of information and knowledge” (Beck, 1999: 266). Hence knowledge management actually is also risk management and the management of non-knowledge, its task is to cope with the dialectic of knowledge and non-knowledge in such a way that risks can be reduced and systemic problems solved.

In the KBS the velocity, intensity, and extensity of social change has massively increased, technology is an important medium of these transformations. But it is hard to cope with this increased flexibility for social systems. New methods of design are needed in order to avoid systemic problems. “We have simply failed to match the advancement of our technological intelligence with an advancement in sociocultural intelligence, an advancement in human quality and wisdom“ (Banathy, 1996: 315).

The top-down-steering of social systems doesn’t realize the full potential of human beings. We individually and collectively have the right and responsibility to design the systems we live in. ”Our design inquiry is to be guided by ideals of a life that is freer and more compassionate, that is guided by the desire to create conditions that lead to the unfolding of the maximum individual and collective potentials, coupled with the achievements of the greatest social and environmental harmony“ (186). ”It is suggested that the design can be termed to be ethical only if it enables the self-determination of the stakeholders and respects their autonomy and uniqueness. Design should be self-guided and self-directed by the users of the system“ (230). This implies that systems should be designed in such a way that all its members can adequately participate in it and can benefit from their participation. All those individuals and groups who are effected by a system should be able to participate in the design of the system. Participatory systems design doesn’t aim at planning and controlling the future, but it fosters inclusion, communication, and co-operation because it believes that the future is conditioned by the past, and hence is open in the sense that there are always several possible paths of development, and that the possibility that a desirable alternative can be realized can be increased by participatory communication and action.

Concepts of systems management such as Social Systems Design (Banathy, 1996), Critical Systems Thinking, Liberating Systems Theory, Total Systems Intervention (Flood, 1990; Flood/Jackson, 1991a, 1991b; Flood/Romm, 1996; Jackson, 1991, 1992; Ulrich, 1987) or Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland, 1981; Checkland/Scholes 1990) are based on the assumption that systems should be designed co-operatively and participatively, and should empower human beings. Participative democracy comes to life when we individually and collectively develop a design culture that empowers us to create, govern, and constantly reinvent our systems“ (Banathy, 1996: 37). “The notion of ‚empowering’ people to make decisions that affect their lives and their systems is a core idea of true democracy. Much of this power today is delegated to others“ (ibid.: 344). For Banathy the notion of participatory systems design implies a self-governing, self-creating society.

How can co-operation and participation as fundamental principles of knowledge and systemic management be defined?

Co-operation in a weak sense means co-action, i.e. social action. Co-operation in a stronger sense that I would like to emphasise means more than co-action (cf. Fuchs, 2003g):

·         In co-operation the involved actors are mutually dependent.

·         All actors benefit from co-operating.

·         Co-operating actors have to a certain extent shared goals.

·         By co-operating, actors can reach their goals more quickly and more efficiently than on an individual basis.

·         Co-operation is based on communication about goals and conventions in order to reach a common understanding.

·         In co-operation the actors make concerted use of existing structures in order to produce new structures. Co-operation is based on sharing the existing and the newly produced structures.

·         Co-operation involves mutual learning and the common production of new reality.

·         Co-operation doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, conflict on a non-escalating level can be productive. Controversy can be constructive and conflict creative.

·         In co-operative social relationships there is a high degree of networked, interconnected activity. The actors depend on each other. Mutual interconnectivity and mutual responsibility emerge.

Social self-organization in a broad sense covers the re-production of society in very general terms that apply to all societies and all social systems, but it does not specify how exactly this self-organization of society takes places on a more concrete level. So ascending from the abstract to a more concrete level, one has to distinguish different forms of how society can reproduce itself. A non-functionalistic concept of social self-organization that tries to integrate ethical responsibility and participatory systems design argues that

·         humans are not just auxiliary persons of objective laws, but can and should positively intervene into society, hence they are designers of their future

·         participatory democracy is an expression of self-organization

·         self-organization of social system is oriented on making possible the effective and humanistic satisfaction of human needs

·         the conditions of living should take on forms where all can recognise themselves, determine themselves and realize themselves.

·         self-organization also puts forward the notions of responsibility, solidarity and tolerance

·         self-organization in terms of self-determination means the possibility for a person to give himself his own law and sense

·         there should be active hope for a better society.

·         social self-organization is the principle of bottom-up social organization that stimulates the capacity to act

Designing systems involves assessing the existing systems. For doing so, a typology of systems is needed. Erich Jantsch (1975) has distinguished four types of social systems: deterministic, purposive, heuristic and purposeful ones. They vary according to the rigidity or openness of the subsystems and transformer systems. Here operational targets (which are part of the physical milieu), strategic goals (part of civilization) and policy objectives (part of culture) are important. In deterministic systems, all of these categories are prescribed and remain fixed, a purposive systems formulates and selects a target, the goal is kept fixed. A heuristic systems formulates goals and targets, but still has fixed policy objectives. Purposeful systems formulae and select all of the three categories themselves. Jantsch says that these types of systems represent different types of social self-organization, the purposeful system corresponding to a fully developed human system.

Fig. 6: Jantsch’s typology of self-organizing social systems (from: Jantsch 1975)


The terms Jantsch uses for the three subsystems are rather untypical in sociological approaches, hence I suggest that it is better to distinguish between economy, polity, and culture as the three main subsystems of the sociosphere. Also the identification of basic structures that belong to certain subsystems is a little chaotic in Jantsch’s approach, e.g. policy objectives are not so much a cultural structure than a political one. Hence in my view it is more plausible to assume that the economy is self-organizing system involving a duality between human actors and economic structures (property), polity is a self-organizing system involving a duality between human actors and political structures (decision power), and culture is a self-organizing system involving a duality between human actors and cultural structures (norms/values).


Bela A. Banathy (1996) has based on Jantsch’s work elaborated a useful typology of social systems (cf. fig. 7). The latter is based on five continua: mechanistic vs. systemic, unitary vs. pluralist, restricted vs. complex, closed vs. open, dominating/coercive vs. liberating/empowering. I want to integrate this typology into my conception of social self-organization and will try to show how one can quantify based on this approach different self-organizational types of social systems.


Fig. 7: Banathy’s typology of systems (1996: 267+269)

The continua mechanistic vs. systemic and restricted vs. complex are economic ones, they refer to the basic features of production in a system. Production here is understood in a broad sense that can be found in all systems and defined as the interaction of elements that results in synergies that cause the emergence of order. Hence at the economic level one has to take a look at structure and organizational form. Structure refers to the type of relationships between elements, organizational form means the development of structures in space-time. Structure can be characterized by the continuum restricted-complex, organizational form by the continuum mechanistic-systemic.

The continuum dominating/coercive vs. liberating/empowering refers to political aspects of a social system. It characterizes how procedures of decision-making are designed, who is able to decide what, and how power is distributed in the system. Hence this political quality of a system can be termed decision-making.

The continua unitary vs. pluralist and open vs. closed are cultural aspects of a system. In cultural processes habitus, norms, and values of a system are determined. This his to do with how rigidly or dynamically values are constituted, i.e. a distinction between conservative and progressive can be made here. The quality of value-creation refers to the continuum unitary-pluralist. In cultural processes also the management of boundaries is set, i.e. it is determined how open or closed a system is. The degree of openness of a system can be termed the quality of coupling. The latter term has to do with the way a system is coupled to its environment, i.e. other systems. This quality refers to the continuum open-closed.

Hence for characterizing continua of economic, political, and cultural qualities of a social system, we can give the following definitions. These definitions are based on the ideas of Banathy (1996).

Economic Qualities



a system with few, clearly defined elements, interactions, variables and permanence of state status


a system with a large number of elements, interactions, variables and multiple levels of organization


organizational form


a system in which the parts are stable, rigidly set, static, and operate in a fixed relationship. The elements of the system are mainly related competitively and the system is related to its environment mainly competitively.


indicates a dynamic network character of a system where new order emerges continuously and dynamically and the interactions are flexible and dynamic in character. The elements of the system are mainly related co-operatively and the system is related to its environment mainly co-operatively.


Political Qualities



a system that is a hierarchic ologopoly, autocratic, gives little regard to the desires and purposes of people in the system, and where the members are there only to serve the purposes of the system that are set by a limited number of people. Such a system is an exclusive, estranged, heteronomous, and alienated system.



a system in which people are invited to make unique contributions, and to participate in decision making and use their individual and collective creativity and intelligence. Such systems are inclusive and self-determined.


Cultural Qualities



a system where there is a clearly designated or prescribed singleness of purpose, goals, norms, values. In such systems there is unity without plurality or plurality without unity.


a system where there is unity in plurality of purpose, goals, norms, values. There is much discourse and communication about these qualities, and there is a high degree of mutuality, critique and constructiveness.




a system with well-defined, guarded boundaries, limited and highly regulated interactions with the environment, low degree of co-operation and exchange of elements with other systems, and restricted possibility for outside elements to become members of the system


a system with a great deal of interaction and exchange with the environment, flexible boundary conditions, mutual influence and co-evolution between the system and its environment, a high degree of co-operation and exchange of elements with other systems, and good opportunities for outside elements to become members of the system

Tab. 1: Economic, political, and cultural continua of social self-organization


These five qualities can be quantified by making use of a Lickert scale that ranges from 1 to 5: 1…low, 2…moderate, 3…fair, 4…good, 5.excellent. The self-organization of a certain system can be classified by quantifying each of the qualities, and summarizing the values. For doing so, a participation matrix can be used.


                    ECONOMIC                      POLITICAL                         CULTURAL


organizational form

decision making



1 (restricted)

1 (mechanistic)

1 (dominating)

1 (unitary)

1 (closed)
















5 (complex)

5 (systemic)

5 (liberating)

5 (pluralist)

5 (open)

Tab. 2: The participation matrix of social self-organization


According to the total sum of points, the system can be characterized:

1…5: rigidly controlled system

6…10: deterministic system

11…15: purposive system

16…20: heuristic system

21…25: purposeful/purpose-seeking system

The five types of self-organizing social systems shall be described briefly (cf. Banathy, 1996: 267-273) as follows. All of these systems are self-organizing in the basic sense of social self-reproduction of a system, they all involve a mutual productive relationships of actors and social structures, but they have different degrees and qualities of participation and co-operation.

Rigidly Controlled Systems: rather closed, have only limited and self-guarded interactions with their environments, unitary in purpose, clearly defined goals, mechanistic, coercive hierarchy, no operational freedom, clear prescription of objectives and methods, rules and procedures regulate behaviour, decisions are made at the top, little or no self-direction and creativity, rigid structure, well-defined static relationships between elements, little dynamics

Deterministic Systems: more open to their environment, but still closely guarded boundaries, more variables, components, complexity, and interactions than in rigid control systems, mechanistic, clearly defined purposes and goals, domination prevails, goals are clearly set, operational objectives are prescribed, decisions are made at the top, clear regulation of objectives and methods, some discretion in using methods and tools, limited operational freedom, not much creativity and systemic intelligence, some minor relational and structural changes can be expected to happen through time, steady-state system

Purposive Systems: midrange level of organization, rather complex, rather unitary purposes and goals, middle position between domination and liberation, purposes are set for the system and strategic goals are prescribed, operational objectives and methods and means of operation can be self-selected, occasional rewards for some inventiveness, creativity and intelligence are limited to making suggestions, state changes are gradual, structural changes happen gradually over time and are coupled with changes in systemic relationships, multilevel hierarchy, multiple embeddedness, such systems frequently embed deterministic and rigidly controlled systems

Heuristic Systems: overall purpose is still rather strictly defined, but such systems tend toward being pluralist in that they can formulate their own goals and objectives, complex and systemic in their functional and structural arrangements, open to and co.evolving with their environments, tend to be liberating and empower people in the system, they invite participation and make use of collective intelligence, the overall policy is rather strictly defined, within this framework goals, objectives, ways and means, and methods of operation are self-selected, creativity and intelligence of the members are encouraged, significant relational and structural changes occur over time, state changes are evolutionary and directed by design, emergence, ambiguity, and a certain level of uncertainty surround state changes

Purposeful/Purpose-Seeking Systems: complex, ideal-seeking, guided by images of the future, open to the environment, mutual interaction and co-evolution with the environment, pluralist, seeking and exploring new purposes, systemic arrangements and behaviour, self-transcendence, self-transformation, co-operation with other systems, they often re-organize at higher levels of complexity, they nurture the liberation of people’s potential and their empowerment by enabling them to attain design competence, participatory democratic, policies, purposes, goals are formulated based on images of the future that people in the system shape collectively, constant search for ways and means to pursue the ideal, creativity and intelligence of all members of the system are constantly invited, sought, and nurtured, significant structural changes occur over time, discontinuity and re-organization at higher levels of complexity, directed by purposeful design

There is evidence  that people are willing to try to solve the global problems by designing society in a more co-operative and inclusive manner. Within systems science many scientists have ethical visions of a better society that is based on co-operation, participation, and self-determination.  Jantsch’s and Banathy’s concept of purposeful systems points out an ethical dimension of social systems design. In systems theory terms employed for describing the necessity of change for the better and self-determining social systems are e.g. purposeful systems, gylany, and high synergy.

Riane Eisler and Allan Combs (1992) argue that the dominator myth is an ideology that makes people believe that it is natural and inevitable that violent aggression, armed conquest, and rule by domination govern social interactions. But historical and archaeological studies would show that there were successful cultures such as the Minoan one that were remarkably peaceful. Societies based on a gylanic or partnership principle would see linking as the primary principle of social organisation, life in such societies would be in many respect less brutal and more joyful than in heteronomous societies. 

Ruth Benedict (1992) speaks of high synergy “where any act or skill that advantages the individual at the same time advantages the group” and of low synergy “where every act that advantages the individual is at the expense of others” (Benedict, 1992: 59).

A system can be considered as participatory if power in the system is distributed in such a way that all members and concerned individuals can own the system co-operatively and can produce, decide and live in the system co-operatively. Participation is more than co-operation, it is an integrated notion of co-operative economical, political, cultural, technological and ecological activities. In a participatory system learning, improving and using the system is considered as very important, the users’ experiences, values, ideas, wishes and visions are integrated into the design process, users are enabled to understand the system and their role in the system, if they know what they have to learn to play their role, if the design principles aim at creating consensus among those who are effected by the system and if the design ensures that people will take part more effectively and at a deeper level of commitment in the design process and systemic evolution (Banathy, 1996; Ackoff, 1981). Participation is based on self-determination, direct democracy, co-operation and inclusion; it stands in opposition to heteronomy, social hierarchies, coercion, competition and exclusion. In a participatory organisation, each involved individual has the same possibilities and means of influencing the resulting structures in his own sense and purpose; the macroscopic structures are co-operative social relationships. Owning, producing, deciding, living and learning are co-operative and inclusive processes in participatory organizations. Today, decision-making is detached from those who are affected by decisions. “The centers of decision should not be removed from the people whose lives are affected by the decisions” (Laszlo, 1992: 239). As society is becoming more global, there should also be more global types of governance that go beyond the isolationism of the nation state. Co-operative international governance could be based on the political principle of unity in plurality: decisions are reached in decentralized manner by all those who are affected by them, global communication and understanding try to integrate decisions and political values at the global level. Local decisions should be decentralised, decisions that have global scope should be internationally discussed and decided.

Participation is frequently understood in the very narrow sense of concerned people taking somehow part in decision processes. Such an understanding is limited to the political dimension and says nothing about the scope and dimension of participation. Participation is based on co-operation because it is a social activity and if people take part in social activity one expects them to produce some common, positive results. When I speak of participation I mean a high degree of participation, hence participation is directed against hierarchy, coercion, heteronomy and exclusion, and it is based on self-determination, direct democracy, communication and inclusion.

There are several dimensions of participation in a social system or in society: producing, owning, consuming (economic dimension), deciding, goal-setting, evaluating (political dimension), forming knowledge/norms/values/images/visions, communicating, networking, self-realising (cultural dimension). Participation in each of these ten dimensions can be low, medium or high/full. Low participation means hierarchy and unequal distribution of power, in medium participation there is already a flatter hierarchy and a less unequal distribution of power, but hierarchy and unequally distributed power are still dominating, and in full participation there are no hierarchies and there is an equal distribution of power. E.g., in most economic organisations that exist today there is low economic participation: some own the means of production, capital and the produced goods, others don’t. Full participation here would mean that all together produce and own in a collective process.

We cannot steer the evolution of social systems, but maybe we can give a certain direction to it during a phase of instability. We will not have certainty, but by gaining competence in co-operation, participation, and self-determination we can increase the chance that evolution will take certain desirable directions  and that it won’t take others (such as the escalation of the global problems and the ultimate destruction of mankind and society). During phases of instability and crises we find points where the further development of history is not determined, but relatively open. Such points again and again show up, but it is not determined how the outcome will look like. They are an expression of antagonistic forces that lead to social crises and instabilities. Is our behaviour determined by social structures? Or can we freely decide how to change these structures? Or can both views be integrated dialectically? Possibly, in phases of instability, social chaos and crisis, social actions are very important and influence the further development greatly. In such situations, small causes can have great effects. It is rather determined that a system like capitalism enters crisis and phases of instability periodically. But the outcome, the concrete course and point of time are left to chance.

The principle of co-operation can increase the possibility that systems develop in a sustainable and humane way that makes a socially and ecologically development of society possible.

Modern society is a historical system; this means that it has a beginning and an end. It is determined that this system will come to an end, but not when and how this will occur. I agree with Immanuel Wallerstein that the next 50 years will be a phase of instability; the global problems and the levels of national and international violence will increase

This is all due to the antagonistic social structures of capitalism. The outcome is not determined, rather relatively open. It depends upon the social struggles and resulting emancipatory social actions. We have no guarantees that a sustainable development will be the result, but the fact is that progress is possible, but certainly not inevitable. „The future [...] is open to possibility, and therefore to a better world“ (Wallerstein, 1997b). Immanuel Wallerstein also points out that this crisis can be seen as a crossroads of the historical development of society: “...this structural crisis leads us into a dark period of struggle over what kind of system will succeed the existing one. We can think of this as a bifurcation, and therefore the beginning of a chaotic period, within which no one can predict the outcome, which is inherently indeterminate. There will be a new structure, a new order, but it may be either better or worse than the existing one. It depends on what we all do in the period of acute struggle and how clearly we understand the forces at work” (Wallerstein, 1999b; see also Wallerstein, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999a, 2000).

One of the major factors responsible for the crisis of the world system is the antagonism of co-operation and competition (which is just another expression for the antagonisms between self-determination and heteronomy as well as between inclusion and exclusion), which is characteristic of modern society. Competitive processes still dominate the social world; social structures today are predominantly exclusive ones. Sustainable design of nature, alliance technology, participatory economy, participatory democracy and participatory culture are aspects of co-operation that as an integrated unity or co-operative model of social self-organisation can help us solve global problems such as the pollution of nature, the destructive effects of high risk technologies, poverty, exploitation, wars, violent conflicts, racism, terrorism, nationalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. 

A change of dominance is necessary in order to solve our global problems and to save humanity from self-destruction: The dominance of co-operation by competition, of inclusion by exclusion has to be reversed. If this can be done, a fair, just and attractive society may be established that manages to get rid of its global problems. Inclusive, democratic and co-operative ones should replace the current destructive and competitive types of re-creation in order to establish a participatory mode of social self-organisation/re-creation.

Co-operation means that actors communicatively make concerted use of existing structures in order to create new structures. Structures are medium and outcome of co-operation in communicative settings with positive “symbiotic” relationships. Such relationships are intelligent, i.e. they are based on collective intelligence (Lévy, 1997) or wisdom which describes social situations, processes and states where there is a participatory constitution, design and usage of rules and resources and which are considered fair, just and fulfilling by the involved actors, within the framework of individual participation.

Actors have certain goals and there are different ways of reaching them. Combining certain ways might be symbiotic in such a way that the goals don’t interfere and by co-operation all participating actors can benefit from each other and reach their goals. A social “symbiosis” is a communicative setting where all actors benefit and no-one loses and a positive, intelligent whole emerges by co-operation. By co-operation collective intelligence can be reached, hence one can also speak of co-operative intelligence (Fuchs/Stockinger, 2003).

Social systems are problem-solving systems. In order to do so, they are auto- and re-creative, they create new reality and new environments. These systemic capabilities can be designed in different ways, co-operation is one of them. By communicating and co-operating, desirable social settings and mutual benefits can be reached. There are different forms of communication, action and designing society. There are also different ways of co-operating. Participatory co-operation can be intelligent co-operation so that all involved communication partners have advantages and can benefit. Intelligent co-operation is a way of creating new reality in re-creative loops. By intelligent co-operation structures can emerge that enable a participatory and sustainable design of society and social systems. If this is the case, one can speak of the emergence of Co-operative Intelligence. Co-operative Intelligence and Intelligent Co-operation can emerge in auto- and re-creative loops where social actions and communications are co-ordinated intelligently so that a new intelligent whole emerges that enables a participatory and sustainable design by acting and communicating.

Many of our social systems are rigidly controlled or deterministic self-organizing systems that are limited in participation and co-operation. What needs to be done in order to cope with the increased complexity of the social world is to systemically redesign these systems in such a way that they develop into purposeful self-organizing systems. Our social systems today don’t operate as purposeful systems, they are still mainly rigid control, deterministic, or purposive systems. “Purposeful systems are rare in the decisive institutions of society and hardly ever underlie planning efforts. Yet, in a period of cultural transition like ours, in which new values and new norms come into play and new roles for institutions (and possibly also new institutions) are gradually emerging, it is the highest step in self-organization which becomes of crucial importance for planning and actual change” (Jantsch, 1975: 73). Co-operation and participation allow the shared usage of the knowledge of a system’s participants. Creative synergies can arise from interactions that result in novelty and innovation. Hence co-operation and participation are principles of knowledge management, i.e. of the management of cognition, communication, and co-operation in social systems.

Participatory systems design assumes that the best method for solving problems in organizations is to involve those concerned by the problems in the process of finding out what the reasons of the problem are and how it can be changed. Such design methods are based on cognitive values, visions, desires, anxieties (cognition); communication, and co-operation. An example is Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology that consists of seven stages (Checkland, 1981; Checkland/Scholes, 1990). First, the problem situation is unstructured and stakeholders think that a systemic consultation is necessary. Second, the analyst collects information in order to understand the structure, transformations, norms, roles, values, and the distribution of power in the organization. For doing so, Rich Pictures that visualize the problem situation in terms of the actors, structures, processes, interactions, and flows in the organization are drawn. Third, the relevant systems in the organization are named and described. Here different world views and understandings are reflected in a plurality of systems that are considered as being relevant. For each system a root definition – an abstract representation of the system and its problems – is made in the form of a CATWOE description (identifying customer, actor, transformation process, Weltanschauung, owner, and environmental constraints). A root definition is a basic description of purposeful activity taken from a specific point of view. Fourth, a conceptual model is built by extracting the verbs from the root definitions and interpreting them as processes that are represented as nodes in a graph. These nodes are logically connected with arrows showing how the organizational processes are connected. Fifth, the conceptual model is compared with reality, each node and connection is analyzed and a list showing for each aspect concept, reality, and difference can be made. Sixth, feasible and desirable changes are identified and discussed. Seventh, actions are taken to improve the problem situation. SSM is an iterative process that can start from the beginning after its finished once if that seems to be necessary and desirable.

Fig. 8: Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) according to Peter Checkland

The basic idea of SSM is that soft problems are hard to define because there are different world views and definitions of problem-situations by the actors in a system. The conceptual model reflects different world views as well as hopes and visions of how the organization as an ideal system should look like. Hence building visions and anticipating the future is a central aspect of SSM. SSM is a very open method, Checkland doesn’t give precise guidelines of how the single steps should be carried out. Hence SSM can either be carried out as a pure expert method where the analyst makes all definitions, models, conclusions, suggests a solution, and interviews the actors; or as a participatory method where at least the expression of the problem situation, the comparison stage, and the formulation of changes and actions is carried out in co-operative group situations that involve all concerned actors and focus on consensus-building. If an application of SSM is seen as a social system, the hierarchical expert form represents a rigid control system, and the participatory form a purposeful system. Because of assuming that co-operation and participation are the best guidelines for successfully solving problems in organizations, I suggest that SSM should be carried out as a participatory method. Such an understanding is also put forward implicitly by Checkland because he assumes that it is important to take into account the perceptions, world views, and values of all of the people in the organization. Hence focusing on consensual action seems to be reasonable. Rich pictures should be visualizations that will be recognized by the actors as being representative of the situation they find themselves in. Hence a co-operative formulation of rich pictures seems to be feasible. The distinction between a conceptual world and the real word in the design process shows that SSM assumes that there is a difference between what is and what should be and that design is considered as value-laden.

Bela A. Banathy’s (1996) method of Social Systems Design (SSD) is based on the idea that human actors can solve problems by co-operatively creating a shared image and vision of a desired future. By anticipating a future system they would transcend the existing system. Banathy argues that SSD takes place in five different interconnected spaces (see fig. 9): in the exploration space visions and images of the future system are created by the actors, in the design information and knowledge space knowledge about the future system (content and context of design, characteristics of the system and its environment, design models, methods, and tools) is displayed. This space is permanently actualized. In the design solution space the system, its structure, and its functions are defined and specified. In the experimentation and evaluation space different alternatives are assessed. In the modelling space the model of the new system is designed. The design process is not linear, but a dynamic and iterative process. Hence design develops as a spiral that shifts from space to space. There are four consecutive spirals, in each of them the cycle is traversed once: 1. formulating the core definition of the new system, 2. developing a specification of the new  system, 3. selecting functions of the new system, 4. designing management, organization, and environment of the new system. Besides focusing on human values, visions, and desires, SSD is based on the idea that concerned actors should be involved in the design of their systems and should design co-operatively. SSD is a participatory and co-operative design method.

Fig. 9:The Iterative Process Of Social Systems Design (Banathy, 1996; pp.74)

In “scientific management” management was defined the following way: “To manage is to forecast and plan, to organize, to command, to co-ordinate and to control. To forecast and plan mean examining the future and drawing up· the plan of action. To organize means to build up the dual structure, material and human, of the undertaking. To command means maintaining activity amongst the personnel. To coordinate means bonding together, unifying and harmonizing all activity and effort. To control means seeing that everything occurs in conformity with established rule and expressed command" (Fayol, 1949). Such a concept of management is opposed to the democratic and ethical vision of social systems design. Hence if one applies such a limited notion of management, one must conclude that social systems design is not a form of management. However, if one understands management alternatively as the initiation of change in a social system, one can distinguish different forms of management, i.e. more hierarchic and more participatory management styles. The idea of “scientific management” puts forward a hierarchic, authoritarian, bureaucratic, estranged, alienated, dominating, heteronomous, centralized, coercive form of management, whereas social system design focuses on self-organization, inclusion, participation, co-operation, liberation, emancipation, well-being, and sustainability. Hence hierarchic management and social systems design form two opposites on a continuum that characterizes different forms of management. Knowledge refers to the dynamic relationships of human actors in social systems that results in emergent systemic change. Hence the term “knowledge management” describes ways of how to best initiate change and communication in social systems.

The historical development of capitalism has shown that hierarchic management only poses limited advantages: In the early 1970s, the Fordist mode of development of capitalism entered crisis. One of the reasons was that the hierarchic Taylorist model of organizing work reached its limits and promoted refusal of work and class struggle because the work force couldn't stand the permanent and extraordinary psychological and physical burdens[1]. Other reasons were the technological and organisational limits the centralist Taylorist methods had reached. As a result, the growth rate of productivity decreased and wages and constant capital relatively increased. The centralised and hierarchic forms of economic organisation increasingly proved to be inflexible and rigid. The costs of wage labour had increased relatively fast during the 1960ies due to the power of the organised interest of the working class. The growth of productivity was relatively slow during the 1960ies, the growth of wages relatively fast. These two factors negatively influenced profit rates.

Henri Fayol (1949) has pointed out 14 principles of hierarchic management. One can oppose these principles to principles of social systems design. I believe that all 14 principles in both approaches are connected to the management of knowledge in social systems. The two approaches suggest different principles of managing people, knowledge, and resources in an organization, i.e. knowledge management forms an integral part of the old and the new style of management. All principles are related to the 3 aspects of knowledge management (cognition, communication, co-operation), hence if we employ some of these principles for managing an organization, we are not only managing the organization, but also the knowledge of both the actors in the system and the organization itself.

Principles of Hierarchic Management

Principles of Social Systems Design

Division of Labour

The total work process is divided into small entities that are allocated to single workers that focus on homogenous labour and skills.

Unity of Labour

The work process is organized in such a way that workers can realize their potentials and enhance their skills.

Authority and Responsibility

Orders should be given by a special group of highly responsible individuals.

Self-Management and Responsibility

Authority is irresponsible and violates the fundamental right that those who are concerned by decisions should jointly and co-operatively take decisions. Self-management means that those who are affected by decisions are considered as being capable of learning how to act responsibly and hence should be allowed to fully participate in decision processes.


Organizations function best when the abiding of norms, values, and rules is coercively controlled and sanctioned.


Organizations function best when its actors define the norms, values, and rules of the system co-operatively.

Unity of Command and Direction

An employee should receive instructions from one superior only. There should be one head of the organization and of a group. This head takes all decisions that concern his subordinates. Information flows from top to the bottom in an organizational hierarchy.

Unity of Co-operation and Coordination (Co-operative Co-ordination)

Practical steps and decisions to be taken should be discursively co-ordinated, tasks should be jointly and co-operatively allocated within a group and an overall organization. Management is a participatory process. The information flow in the organization is not asymmetric and hierarchic, but knowledge is co-operatively produced and shared in a flexible network organization. All actors are consumers and producers of knowledge (prosumers). For co-operatively producing and sharing knowledge ICT and databases should be used as a supporting medium. 

Subordination of Individual Interests

A collective interest of the organization is centrally defined and there is no room for individual interests. The organization as a whole prevails over individual values and desires.

Unity in Plurality

The collective interest of the organization is set discursively in communicative action. It reflects both consensus about overall goals, strategies, and values as well as the diversity of individual desires and values that leaves room for different ways of attaining overall goals.


Wages paid to employees should be fair and satisfactory to both the employer and the employee. Wages should guarantee the cost of living for the employees as well as profit for the company. They should encourage employees to put the best efforts.

Material Participation

There should be no hierarchical difference between employers and employees. Every actor in an organization is considered as equal in rights and should get an equitable share of property, resources, and remuneration. Equitable wages and social security guarantee satisfaction, joy, well-being of the actors and efficiency of the organization.


Decisions are made from the top by the management that forms a special group at an upper hierarchical level.


Social systems work best if they are organized as decentralized networks where decisions are made in bottom-up-processes that are based on grassroots democratic procedures.

Scalar Chain

There is a formal chain of command running from top to bottom of the organization, like in the military.

Network Organization

Organizations are not based on a social hierarchy of command and control, but on a participatory network organization where individuals and groups have relative autonomy and are interconnected in order to share experiences, information, resources, and to co-ordinate overall decisions and the work flow. The organization is not a hierarchic linear tree, but a non-hierarchic, complex rhizome.


There is one fixed place for every person and every thing in the organization. Disorder leads to chaos, confusion, and inefficiency.


Order from Noise

Places and spaces are dynamic in nature. Resources and knowledge are shared and shifted. Positions, tasks, and roles of the actors can be shifted, enlarged, enriched, and are discursively set in communicative actions. Disorder and fluctuations in the sense of new ideas, demands, tasks, roles, actions, problems, and challenges are considered as creative and as the possibility for creating new higher order in the system that can benefit the organization and its members. Order in the organization doesn’t emerge from rigidity and stability, but from flexibility and instability.


Subordinates should be treated fairly, kind, equal, and just in order to produce loyalty and devotion.




Social hierarchies in decision-making and in material rewards are an expression of inequity. Equity means that all actors in the organizations are considered as creative, knowledgeable human beings that have the right and the ability to design the organization according to their own needs and interests in a co-operative process. All are treated as equal participants and partners.

Stability of Tenure of Personnel

Good workers have the same position in the organization for a life time, incompetent workers are removed. Time is needed for the employee to adapt to his/her work and perform it effectively. Stability of tenure promotes loyalty to the organisation, its purposes and values.


Instability of Tenure of Personnel

All actors in the organization are considered as sensual, knowledgeable, active, creative, learning human beings that are capable of creating innovations and must be provided with an adequate environment in order to realize their potentials. Effective performance is related to self-determination and self-expression, actors are encourage to learn together and from each other, to share their knowledge, to form new subsystems, and to change positions and skills.


Subordinates should be permitted to take some initiatives in preparing and executing plans. The manager can raise the morale and skills of his subordinates by encouraging and supporting initiative of the subordinates.


A climate of partnership should be created, i.e. there is a joint search for effective solutions to individual and collective problems, individuals support each other in attaining individual and collective goals and in solving problems by sharing knowledge, power, resources, expertise, visions, anxieties, feelings, etc. Co-operation and participation allow the shared usage of the knowledge of a system’s participants. Creative synergies can arise from co-operative communicative actions, from these synergies novelty and innovation can creatively emerge. In order to guarantee the achievement of a common understanding, certain claims to validity of communication and co-operation must be fulfilled (Habermas, 1984):

comprehensibility (a statement must be comprehensible for the communication partners),
truth (statements must be according to facts),
truthfulness (intention and statements must be in accordance with each other),
rightness (the normative context of communication must be clarified and agreed upon).

What Habermas has introduced is a form of communicative rationality that aims at consensus-building, due to the fact that this idea is closely related to advancing co-operation, it can be said that we not only need a communicative rationality, but also a co-operative rationality that aims at creating participatory organizations.

In order to communicate and share knowledge, and to support the co-operative production of knowledge, ICT should be used. ICT are a powerful medium of communication and co-operation, but they can’t and shouldn’t substitute personal interaction in an organization.

Esprit de Corps

The organization emphasizes the need for teamwork and the maintenance of interpersonal relationships based on harmony and unity. Managers should create such harmony, unity and understanding among the employees and focus on unity of purpose and action.


Esprit de Coopération

The whole is not considered as being made up by centrally and hierarchically ordered parts, but by being constituted by equal parts that participate in all areas of concern and co-operatively design the whole. There is not harmony and unity in the sense of stability and homogeneity, but harmony and unity in the sense of unity in diversity, and a culture of co-operation that allows humaneness, efficiency, and the dynamic emergence of order from spontaneity and creative interactions.

Tab. 3: Principles of Knowledge Management in two Different Management Cultures

My main hypothesis is that participation and co-operation are the most democratic and efficient methods for managing knowledge.

The new principles of management refer to a new way of handling communication and social relationships as well as their material effects in an organization. Whether decisions are made centrally or are co-ordinated in a participatory process is a question of how communication and social relationships are designed, whether there is discipline or self-control/central control or joint communicative and co-operative rationality sets up the framework for the cognitive and physical well-being of human beings.

Considering social systems as self-organizing means to acknowledge that order and knowledge emerge in bottom-up-processes of cognition, communication, and co-operation where the interactions of human beings result in create synergies. Such a concept of social self-organization is based on the fact that human beings are creative, knowledgeable, active,  social beings.

For me the notion of social self-organization includes the ideas:


·        that systems are based on the activity and creativity of human beings

·        that order emerges from decentralized, bottom-up synergetic interactions


Therefore this notion shows for me the need for:


·        co-operation

·        participation

·        self-management

·        grassroots democracy

Taking this essence of social systems into account has ethical implications in so far as it means that if order emerges from interaction and creative social relationships, all human beings have the ability to act responsibly and the need to realize themselves and develop their potentials, and hence should be provided with possibilities to participate in the design and management of social systems. Hence such a concept of social self-organization puts forward the ideas of grassroots democracy, emancipation and liberation from domination, inclusion, sharing, and partnership. Participation is both a fundamental human right and a principle of knowledge management that can contribute to organizational efficiency. Participation is egalitarian: Everyone can gain design competence and take responsibility for the systems (s)he lives in. Everyone should have equal opportunities, equal voice, and equal rights in contributing to social systems design. “Design flourishes only if there is equity among the participants. Everyone has the same right and responsibility in making contributions. […] Liberation and emancipation from dominance become among the highest qualities to be realized in social systems design” (Banthy, 1996: 308f). Participation creates human dignity and commitment and allows the emergence of order from creativity, the latter understood as the innovative, novelty-creating use of knowledge.

Human emancipation aims to ensure the well-being of all individuals and the full development of their human potential. The Total Systems Intervention approach (also known as Critical Systems Theory) fosters critical awareness, social awareness, commitment to human well-being, and emancipation (Jackson, 1992: 272; cf. also Flood, 1990; Flood/Carson, 1993; Flood/Jackson, 1991a, 1991b; Flood/Romm, 1996) as fundamental human values. “We all want to be involved in making decisions that influence our lives. And we accept and feel good about implementing a solution we help to devise” (Nadler/Hibino,  1990: 225). Participation is “the best strategy if you want long-term dignity, meaning and community” (Weisbord, 1992: 109). Banathy (1996) argues that ethical values that a system design should reflect are authenticity, sustainability, realization of ideals, multidimensionality, multiperspectiveness, user-friendliness, uniqueness (design qualities), responsiveness/responsibility, diversity, design culture, acceptance/respect, aesthetics (community qualities), complexity, systemic worldview, dynamics, robustness/flexibility, coevolution, self-organization (systemic qualities), creativity, development of individual and collective potential, design competence, liberation, learning, individual and collective intelligence (individual and collective qualities). Such ethical design principles would be a foundation of an efficient and humane design. Checkland/Scholes (1990) argue that a design should comply to five ethical principles (the 5 “Es”): efficacy (does it work?), efficiency (are minimum resources used?), effectiveness (does it attain the goals and expectations?), ethicality, elegance (is it aesthetically pleasing?).

4.         Conclusion

I have argued in this paper that if one assumes that human beings are passive outside observers of society that have to adapt to structural developments and can’t consciously co-ordinate their actions, a concept of knowledge management that is based on such ideas will be a sort of systemic fatalism. As an alternative I have suggested to conceive management in a broad sense as the initiation of change in social systems. Managing knowledge is a fundamental task in the KBS, but it can be done in different ways. I have distinguished two different cultures of management: hierarchic management that is based on the ideas of coercion, control, and steering, and social systems design that is based on the ideas of co-operation and participation. Considering social systems as self-organizing systems in the sense of a duality of structure where new qualities emerge from the creative interactions of human actors, means to acknowledge that social systems are human activity systems that are based on creativity. Hence it seems desirable that social systems are designed in such a way that human potentials and creativity can be realized. Such a concept of social self-organization puts forward the idea that knowledge management should be understood as social systems design and should be based on participation and co-operation as two fundamental principles that allow a humane and effective co-ordination and production of knowledge.

In the KBS knowledge, labour, and technology are the fundamental productive forces. Human beings can’t be estranged from the ownership of their brains as means of production, hence they control these subjective means and hence have a certain power potential. The KBS and its social systems don’t yet correspond to a fully developed purposeful social system, the KBS is based on the individual, social, and collective knowledge of its human members, but the results of knowledge production are not distributed in a co-operative and participatory way. Knowledge producers whose knowledge is the foundation of the KBS, but who are estranged and alienated from full co-operation and participation, form a cognitariat or cybertariat. The cognitariat (Berardi, 2001)/cybertariat (Huws, 2003) is a class of knowledge producers in society that controls its means of production, but can’t fully participate in the consumption and distribution of the results of production. Knowledge is socially produced in processes where the producers are immediate owners of the cognitive means of production, but it is individually appropriated as a commodity. The task of social systems design as a contemporary form of knowledge management is the struggle for a fully co-operative and participatory KBS where the cognitariat/cybertariat is sublated and a truly cognitive, communicative, and co-operative society can emerge.

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Acknowledgement: This paper is based on research done within the framework of the project ‘Human Strategies in Complexity: Philosophical Foundations for a Theory of Evolutionary Systems’ ( funded by INTAS (#0298) and supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.

Contact The Author: Christian Fuchs, Institute of Design and Technology Assessment, Vienna University of Technology, Favoritenstr. 9-11/187 A-1040 Vienna, Austria; Email: Tel: ++43/1/58801-18734




[1] Helmut Willke (1995: 81ff) points out that increasing complexity with the help of hierarchy results in a point where efforts and costs for organising correct communication becomes counterproductive. Complexity would become unmanageable due to the increase of complexity of things (instruments, machines, technologies), communications and interactions, time, space, time, space and cognition. One can say that at the beginning of the 1970ies Fordism had reached a point where hierarchical steering in economic organisations became impossible due to the increased complexity of production.