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Promise Theory

A Theory of Voluntary Cooperation

Imagine a simple set of principles that could help you to understand how parts combine to become a whole, and how each part sees the whole from its own perspective. If such principles were any good, it shouldn't matter whether we're talking about humans in a team, birds in a flock, computers in a datacenter, or cogs in a Swiss watch. A theory of cooperation ought to be pretty universal, so we could apply it both to technology and to the workplace. Such principles are the subject of Promise Theory. The goal of Promise Theory is to reveal the behaviour of a whole from the sum of its parts, taking the viewpoint of the parts rather than the whole.

Courses on Promise Theory

Learning how to apply Promise Theory.



Learn Open Leadership Network methods for agile transformation and management.





We recommend you to get a copy of the Notebook for the course.

Self-paced Course

* Promise Theory Basics for Leadership

Q&A Bundle Course

* With up to two hours of online question time and feedback

8-Hour Face to Face Online Course

* Walking through online 

materials, for OLN

Onsite Course

* By Arrangement

Books on Promise Theory

Innovative. Insightful. Inspiring.


The scaling of intentional systems with faults, errors, and flaws

This second volume describes the systematic application of Promise Theory to systems, representing a significant step forward in describing functional systems with both dynamics and semantics.  Promise Theory provides the first impartial language 

for multiscale system phenomena. 

The closer one is the intrinsicscale of a system component, the more its qualitative semantics dominate its behaviour.


Promise Theory on Brexit

Promise theory can be applied to many situations. In the past, case studies have mostly been around technology, mainly due to the paucity of cases that can be analysed publicly. Britain's referendum decision to exit the European Union offers a unique opportunity to examine a complex decision process through the lens of promises.


Analytical Descriptions of Human-Information Networks

This book, summarizes the scientific 

foundations for modelling resources, efficiency, and security of human-machine systems. The lessons 

learned from this volume led to the 

development of Promise Theory, covered in volume 2, and represent a significant step forward in describing functional systems with a multiscale approach that embodies both dynamics and semantics.

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Principles and Applications

This book is aimed at scientists and engineers. It introduces readers to promises in a practical manner, keeping within the paradi gm of `voluntary cooperation'. The book draws on examples from the real world, with a special emphasis on computers and information systems. 


Money,Ownership & Agency

This book is aimed at economists, philosophers, and engineers. It introduces readers to the concepts in a practical manner, building on the concept of voluntary cooperation. The book draws on many examples from the real world, with a particular emphasis on semi-formal semantics.


Designing Systems for Cooperation

This book is aimed at general readers with a technology background. The book draws on examples from the real world, with a special emphasis on computers and information systems.  


The main theme of my work, since 1998 has been the understanding and scaling of human-computer systems, in particular the idea of self-maintaining, `smart' functional infrastructure, using embedded information technology. Since 2007, I have been working on two main subjects: the formalization of the concepts and applications of Promise Theory (largely with Jan Bergstra) and the question of Knowledge Management for IT infrasructure, particularly semantic networks. This is in continuation of previous work on the dynamics and semantics of information infrastructure for pervasive computing or "Internet of Things".

In the overlap between Promises and Knowledge, I got interested in BDIM "Business Driven IT Management", or what it means to make IT business relevant (thanks for Claudio Bartolini). Following talks by Claudio, Jacques Sauve and John Wilkes in 2006, I drafted this sketch (DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1080.0800) was used as an outline of a keynote held at NOMS in Brasil in 2008, which was the start of using Promise Theory to describe this business alignment, and later DevOps.

​——Mark Burgess

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