Net Log

A New Paradigm for Organizing Businesses

John Makulowich

By John Makulowich

A variety of researchers are exploring a range of interesting problems that the Internet could be used to solve. One of the more intriguing efforts is the work of Norman Johnson, a technical staff member in the theoretical division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

His work, in a number of different papers, including "Symbiotic intelligence: Self-organizing knowledge on distributed networks driven by human interactions," focuses on what he considers the unique capabilities of the Internet for personal and professional communication and collaboration.

These include the ability to integrate quickly heterogeneous systems, to capture detailed signatures of the access and use of information, and to relate and transmit information with relatively minimal loss.

In our telephone conversation, he told me about his work on what he terms noncompetitive approaches to organizations: research which gives new understanding to diversity in the workplace, society and nature.

Johnson noted that while there is a lot of research on collaborative interaction using networks, it takes the standard approach of defining a goal and using the new technology to facilitate traditional problem solving. His work, on the other hand, focuses on what he calls collective problem solving.

He offered the example of how construction firms use individuals' habits to construct paths. "The current strategy is not to plan, but to let people decide by their actions. The company puts grass and wood chips down, and notes what paths emerge as people make their way to the building. The point is that each individual solving his or her own problem forms a collective solution that is useful to everybody," he said.

A corporate analogy would be to bring many diverse technical people together to create a large database through which they could interact, he said. It would yield "a dynamic database for future directions the company can go," said Johnson.

He has also done idealized simulations about how a group of people collectively solve problems. Long-standing studies in economics and the social sciences usually assume a competitive environment. But Johnson raises the question, "What if everyone cooperates and there is no competition, per se?" The analogy on the Internet is the broad representation and collective consensus where everyone gets to contribute.

Johnson said what he uncovered surprised him; a critical ingredient was the importance of diversity in a very general sense, a diversity of capability and experience in solving problems. "If you reduce that diversity in any way, ... then you reduce the performance of the system. And that could be the quality of the outcome. In noncompetitive systems, you need maximum diversity," Johnson said.

Thus, the Internet offers the opportunity for noncompetitive groups inside organizations to overcome traditional approaches.

The social twist in this is what diversity amounts to is keeping your individuality and uniqueness and what correlates best with performance is the unique experience each person brings to the task. In Johnson's view, this new paradigm of the way our society works eventually will be the way we will organize our businesses.

To contact John , send e-mail to; his Web address is

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