There is a visible and growing interest in complexity science among social media specialists. This interest is highlighting  once again some longstanding flaws in the information approaches of aid agencies.

In a recent interview, Arthur L. Jue, co-author of ‘Social Media at Work‘ has suggested that both social media and Open Space Technology share a common basis in the ideas of complexity science. As he said to Tom Clifford:

Open Space Technology (OST) draws on principles of chaos and complexity theory, such as self organizing systems, to offer a methodology for facilitating critical conversations in face-to-face meetings that achieve breakthrough outcomes in relatively short timeframes.

…It occurred to me that OST and social media are really quite similar – they’re both applications of chaos and complexity theory in different socio-technical contexts. Whereas OST reflects microcosms of complex adaptive systems at work in the physical world, social media reflects the same thing in the virtual world.

During an OST facilitated meeting, for example, practitioners adhere to a “Law of Two Feet,” moving from one cluster of conversation to another wherever they feel that they are learning and contributing optimally. Similarly, social media involves an organic flow of self-organized, emergent interactions online. Whoever shows up in OST is considered the right person because s/he cared enough about the subject to attend. The same is true for social media. Whenever people comment on or contribute to blogs, they are “showing up” because they care about the topic under discussion.

Social media is really one grand OST experiment using the Internet as our meeting place. That said, studying principles of OST in designing online experiences can help organizations gain valuable insights about how to best utilize social media internally.

In December, Venessa Miemis wrote an article entitled ‘Is Twitter a Complex Adaptive System?‘, and concluded that there was “…a striking similarity between many… key properties [of complexity science and] what’s occurring on Twitter…”

What is the relevance of this for aid agencies? A recent report by the Vodafone Foundation that suggested that many aid agencies have so far failed to take advantage of new social media tools. This has been explicitly linked to the way in which aid agencies are structured and managed. As one of the report authors, Diane Coyle, noted in a BBC interview:

The top-down and centralised nature of aid agencies fails to take advantage of the potential offered by [new] technologies. It’s really quite a different approach from what they’ve done traditionally…

The report suggests that aid agencies could work best by providing a framework for the use of social media technologies, coordinating their use by people in poor and disaster-affected communities, and allowing the free flow of information among people.

This idea, whilst in keeping the ideas of emergence and self-organisation from complexity science (see previous Aid on the Edge posts on distributed leadership in the Obama Campaign and on the use of Open Space in conversation) stands in sharp contrast to the traditional information biases common to aid work. As highlighted by numerous researchers, agencies place greater emphasis on their internal knowledge and capabilities compared with the knowledge of aid recipients and local and national organisations.

The fundamental change called for is spelled out by Coyle:

I think the frame of mind of aid agencies is that it’s their job to help… but it may be that actually the best help you can give is letting other people do it. For the first time the people in affected populations could do more to help themselves, but they can’t do that if the structures of the people trying to help them don’t change.

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Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. At the level of the organisation I think you are right to support Diane Coyle’s analysis that complex and emergent social knowledge use and construction is at variance with the structures of bilateral aid administration. Headquarters knowledge, communication and ICT policies more often than not do sustain normative biases towards delineating and valuing internal knowledge differently from that outside the organisation. So for example head quarters policies would not support the popular use of public social media tools (twitter, facebook, etc) by staff on the organisation’s IT networks and instead have policies that restrict communication via social media to communications staff authorised to speak in the name of the organisation. Where the picture gets even more interesting (and I think more hopeful for change of the type you are suggesting) is when our analysis is reframed to look again at bilateral aid in terms of what aid workers actually do. This is because the international nature of aid inherently creates space between headquarters and country staff wherein non-formal practice often flourishes. So for example to get their jobs done well motivated bilateral aid staff frustrated by the high-bandwidth and low relevance of many IT solutions rolled out at the organisational level often improvise with a variety of public media. In particular local mobile phone networks, webmail and file sharing sites are often relied upon informally as the default way to get things done. As local mobile internet improves the informal take up of mainstream web based social media by aid workers is likely to spread rapidly beyond the current pioneers. What is striking about this informal use of social media is how it already bridges the theoretical organisational boundary between internal and external knowledge. The knowledge of “aid recipients and local and national organisations” is often already flowing inside the organisation, but mediated by aid workers who repackage and authorise it (which is problematic from a power perspective admittedly).

    But how do these two realities of the aid organisation and the aid worker co-exist? As you’ve said elsewhere Ben, organisation is a label for a powerful conversation between tightly social related individuals. As such the meta-narrative at headquarters is in a dynamic relationship between the plural narratives of aid workers at the country level. When aid administration fails, even on its own terms, it is perhaps because the conversation descends into a slanging match where no one is listening and parallel worlds of practice emerge that no longer connect. What is promising though, building upon Coyle and your analyses, is that “the framework for the use of social media technologies” doesn’t have to come as an outright challenge to the traditions of aid administration. Rather we can see it as a move to recognise and empower the subaltern tradition of engaged aid workers, one that has always been much more open and participative than the meta-narratives of aidland would allow us to say. Aid work will still need to evolve, in particular the who and why of knowledge mediation between the local and the global will have to see a big power shift. The risk though is though that headquarters continue to see their role as managing social media. What this blog and the wider field of complexity suggests to us is that an emergent system of social aid will not have levers and logics that can be grasped from afar.

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  2. […] Social media, complexity science, and an age old information challenge for aid agencies […]

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  3. I completely and thoroughly agree with the overall direction of this post. The broader challenge lies in the evolution of the entire aid ecology, including, alas, funding sources and foundations, particularly those that have adopted corporate models for planning and monitoring outcomes to assess performance to maintain funding and receive future support.
    Not saying this isn’t happening or can’t be done–I just suspect that there will be significant lags.

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  4. […] by social and human capital and information infrastructure. (This chimes with the best-case use of social technologies by aid agencies, discussed here a couple of weeks back.) As Comfort puts it:   …when the complexity of […]

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  5. […] This is not to say that all top-down approaches are bad, or that all emergent processes are good. Instead, a better balance between the two is the key. In Bill Easterley lingo, we need to be both Planners and Searchers, at the relevant time, as circumstances and context demand. (Some of these issues were explored in a previous post on social media, aid agencies and complexity.) […]

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.

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Networks, Organisations, Reports and Studies, Technology