The fractal* nature of everything

Just as I see analogies in almost everything, when I look at the world around me I see nothing but fractals. Not the cool geometric images that most people think of, but a nested set of self-similar structures. These structures may be physical, they may behavioral. Everything. I can’t help it. An example of this was my reaction on reading Denham Grey’s recent post Community of One? and the KMWorld article, Personal Toolkit: Three thousand communities of practice by Steve Barth, that he was commenting on.

In Denham’s view, individuals are “black boxes” on the organizational/social network. The connections between these black boxes are what is important. If you were to look at an organization from “the outside”, what you would see would not likely be much different than what a neurosurgeon sees when looking at an MRI / PET Scan (or whatever they use to study brain activity, I always forget).

For a given activity, certain clumps of neurons (ie, certain groups of individuals) will light up with activity, sending messages back and forth and ultimately sending signals to another clump for further processing, or possibly action. It doesn’t really matter, from this perspective, how the neurons themselves work, what is inside the black box. What matters is how and what they communicate, and the results that are obtained in terms of organizational behavior and performance.

Steve, on the other hand, is looking at what is inside Denham’s black box. The important thing here is how the individual takes all the input and processes it to provide output back to the organizations. If you take an individual, and look in from the “outside” as we did with the organization, you can see the “black boxes” that are the true neurons in the individual’s brain.

Bombarded by input from co-workers and the environment, these black boxes in the individual light up in clumps based on what is needed, passing the info along for processing or action. Again, what matters is not what the neurons are doing but how this translates into behavior and performance.

If you continue drilling down into this fractal world you will see how the neurons themselves work, and if you take one more step “out” you can see how sub-organizations are the black boxes of super-organizations (for example, General Electric is made up of a large number of unrelated, yet co-related, organizations that do their own thing to contribute to the overall organizational behavior and performance.)

* Here I’m using this explanation of fractal from

A fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be subdivided in parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a smaller copy of the whole. Fractals are generally self-similar (bits look like the whole) and independent of scale (they look similar, no matter how close you zoom in).


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