"Spider Plants and Emergent Order: The Case of an Inter-organizational Network"


Asaf Zohar


This paper focuses on the organization-level challenge of holding together large numbers of semi-autonomous organizing bodies together, while at the same time promoting organizational growth, development, and learning. Leveraging the image of a spider plant as provocation for embracing more adaptive, organic organizing principles to designing a decentralized organizing network, this case study offers a critical account of how a unique context was created that fostered a creative tension between multiple, paradoxical forces. These are described as paradoxes of learning (tensions between the old and the new), paradoxes of organization (tensions between control and flexibility), and paradoxes of belonging (tensions between the self and others).

The challenges posed by getting multiple organizational units "organized", commonly associated with governing structures and processes, can unfold in many different ways. In this case study, the image of a spider plant offered a novel point of departure for designing and enacting a loosely structured network of community-based organizations. This inter-organizational network was able to enact a creative tension between paradoxical forces of decentralization and centralization. In particular, the study critically examines how network members were able to put into place emergent organizing processes and structures, while at the same time avoiding the negative effects of centralized authority and control.

The examination of the interplay of these paradoxical, dynamic tensions in the context of self-organizing, inter-organizational network forms of organization is of special interest for several reasons. First, they are systems that either are not organized in a traditional bureaucratic sense, or actively attempt to undermine the bureaucratic status quo. Second, they appear to embody emergent organizing processes that are well suited for the management of turbulent environmental conditions, what Ackoff (1974) originally termed "messes" - complex, shifting problems characterized by dynamic issues that make it difficult to understand them holistically and systemically. Third, they create many paradoxes for managers and participating individuals since they cannot be controlled and directed through traditional bureaucratic means. Finally, they place the process of organization in general, and governance in particular, at the centre of critical attention.


Asaf Zohar, "Spider Plants and Emergent Order: The Case of an Inter-organizational Network", Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Systems Thinking in Management at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, May 19-21, 2004 (in review).

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