Complexity theory and organizations

Complexity theory and organizations, also called complexity strategy or complex adaptive organizations, is the use of the study of complexity systems in the field of strategic management and organizational studies.

Complexity theory is an interdisciplinary theory that grew out of systems theory in the 1960s.[1]:350 It draws from research in the natural sciences that examines uncertainty and non-linearity.[1] Complexity theory emphasizes interactions and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change systems. While it proposes that systems are unpredictable, they are also constrained by order-generating rules.[2]:74

Complexity theory has been used in the fields of strategic management and organizational studies. Application areas include understanding how organizations or firms adapt to their environments and how they cope with conditions of uncertainty. Organisations have complex structures in that they are dynamic networks of interactions, and their relationships are not aggregations of the individual static entities. They are adaptive; in that the individual and collective behavior mutate and self-organize corresponding to a change-initiating micro-event or collection of events.[3][4]

Key concepts

Complex adaptive systems

Organizations can be treated as complex adaptive systems (CAS) as they exhibit fundamental CAS principles like self-organization, complexity, emergence,[5] interdependence, space of possibilities, co-evolution, chaos, and self-similarity.[3][6][7]

CAS are contrasted with ordered and chaotic systems by the relationship that exists between the system and the agents which act within it. In an ordered system the level of constraint means that all agent behaviour is limited to the rules of the system. In a chaotic system the agents are unconstrained and susceptible to statistical and other analysis. In a CAS, the system and the agents co-evolve; the system lightly constrains agent behaviour, but the agents modify the system by their interaction with it. This self-organizing nature is an important characteristic of CAS; and its ability to learn to adapt, differentiate it from other self organizing systems.[3]

Implications for organizational management

CAS approaches to strategy seek to understand the nature of system constraints and agent interaction and generally takes an evolutionary or naturalistic approach to strategy. Some research integrates computer simulation and organizational studies.

Complexity theory and knowledge management

Complexity theory also relates to knowledge management (KM) and organizational learning (OL). "Complex systems are, by any other definition, learning organizations."[8] Complexity Theory, KM, and OL are all complementary and co-dependent.[8] “KM and OL each lack a theory of how cognition happens in human social systems – complexity theory offers this missing piece”.[8]

Complexity theory and project management

Complexity theory is also being used to better understand new ways of doing project management, as traditional models have been found lacking to current challenges.[9]:23 This approaches advocates forming a "culture of trust" that "welcomes outsiders, embraces new ideas, and promotes cooperation."[9]:35

Recommendations for managers

Complexity Theory implies approaches that focus on flatter, more flexible organizations, rather than top-down, command-and-control styles of management.[2]:84

Additional examples

A typical example for an organization behaving as CAS, is Wikipedia[10] – collaborated and managed by a loosely organized management structure,[10] composed of a complex mix of human–computer interactions.[11][12][13] By managing behavior, and not only mere content, Wikipedia uses simple rules to produce a complex, evolving knowledge base which has largely replaced older sources in popular use.

Other examples include the complex global macroeconomic network within a country or group of countries; stock market and complex web of cross-border holding companies; manufacturing businesses; and any human social group-based endeavor in a particular ideology and social system such as political parties, communities, geopolitical organizations, and terrorist networks of both hierarchical and leaderless nature.[14] This new macro level state may create difficulty for an observer in explaining and describing the collective behavior in terms of its constituent parts, as a result of the complex dynamic networks of interactions, outlined earlier.[3]

See also


  1. Grobman, Gary M. (2005). "Complexity Theory: a new way to look at organizational change" (PDF). Public Administration Quarterly. 29 (3).
  2. Burnes, Bernard (2005). "Complexity theories and organizational change". International Journal of Management Reviews. 7 (2): 73–90. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2370.2005.00107.x.
  3. "Insights from Complexity Theory: Understanding Organisations better". by Assoc. Prof. Amit Gupta, Student contributor - S. Anish, IIM Bangalore. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  4. "Ten Principles of Complexity & Enabling Infrastructures" (PDF). by Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly, Director Complexity Research Programme, London School of Economics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 December 2009. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  5. "Complex Adaptive Systems as a Model for Evaluating Organisational Change Caused by the Introduction of Health Information Systems" (PDF). Kieren Diment, Ping Yu, Karin Garrety, Health Informatics Research Lab, Faculty of Informatics, University of Wollongong, School of Management, University of Wollongong, NSW. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 September 2012. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  6. "Page 3, Similar fundamental between CAS and organisations, from paper "Ten Principles of Complexity & Enabling Infrastructures"" (PDF). by Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly, Director Complexity Research Programme, London School of Economics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 May 2013. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  7. Terra, Leonardo Augusto Amaral; Passador, João Luiz (2016). "Symbiotic Dynamic: The Strategic Problem from the Perspective of Complexity". Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 33 (2): 235. doi:10.1002/sres.2379.
  8. McElroy, Mark W. (2000). "Integrating complexity theory, knowledge management and organizational learning". Journal of Knowledge Management. 4 (3): 195–203. doi:10.1108/13673270010377652. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  9. Saynisch, Manfred (2010). "Beyond frontiers of traditional project management: An approach to evolutionary, self-organizational principles and the complexity theory—results of the research program". Project Management Journal. 41 (2): 21–37. doi:10.1002/pmj.20159.
  10. "A Complex Adaptive Organization Under the Lens of the LIFE Model:The Case of Wikipedia". Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  11. "The Internet Analyzed as a Complex Adaptive System". Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  12. "Cyberspace: The Ultimate Complex Adaptive System" (PDF). The International C2 Journal. Retrieved 25 August 2012. by Paul W. Phister Jr
  13. "Complex Adaptive Systems" (PDF). 2001. Retrieved 25 August 2012. by Serena Chan, Research Seminar in Engineering Systems
  14. "Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community The Wiki and the Blog". D. Calvin Andrus. Retrieved 25 August 2012.

Further reading

  • Axelrod, R. A., & Cohen, M. D., 2000. Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier. New York: The Free Press
  • Yaneer Bar-Yam (2005). Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World. Cambridge, MA: Knowledge Press
  • Beautement, P. & Broenner, C. 2010. Complexity Demystified: A Guide for Practitioners. Axminster: Triarchy Press
  • Brown, S. L., & Eisenhardt, K. M. 1997. The Art of Continuous Change: Linking Complexity Theory and Time-paced Evolution in Relentlessly Shifting Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42: 1–34
  • Burns, S., & Stalker, G. M. 1961. The Management of Innovation. London: Tavistock Publications
  • Davis, J. P., Eisenhardt, K. M., & Bingham, C. B. 2009. Optimal Structure, Market Dynamism, and the Strategy of Simple Rules. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54: 413–452
  • De Toni, A.F., Comello, L., 2010. Journey into Complexity. Udine: Lulu Publisher
  • Fonseca, J. (2001). Complexity and Innovation in Organizations. London: Routledge
  • Douma, S. & H. Schreuder, Economic Approaches to Organizations, 6th edition, Harlow: Pearson.
  • Gell-Mann, M. 1994. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: WH Freeman
  • Kauffman, S. 1993. The Origins of Order. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Levinthal, D. 1997. Adaptation on Rugged Landscapes. Management Science, 43: 934–950
  • Liang, T.Y. 2016. Complexity-Intelligence Strategy: A New Paradigmatic Shift. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.
  • March, J. G. 1991. Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning. Organization Science, 2(1): 71–87
  • McKelvey, B. 1999. Avoiding Complexity Catastrophe in Coevolutionary Pockets: Strategies for Rugged Landscapes. Organization Science, 10(3): 249–321
  • McMillan, E. 2004 Complexity, Organizations and Change. Routledge.ISBN 041531447X Hardback. ISBN 0-415-39502-X Paperback
  • Moffat, James. 2003. Complexity Theory and Network Centric Warfare.
  • Obolensky N. 2010 Complex Adaptive Leadership - Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty
  • Perrow, C. Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay Scott, Forseman & Co., Glenville, Illinois
  • Rivkin, J., W. 2000. Imitation of Complex Strategies. Management Science, 46(6): 824–844
  • Rivkin, J. and Siggelkow, N. 2003. Balancing Search and Stability: Interdependencies Among Elements of Organizational Design. Management Science, 49, pp. 290–311
  • Rudolph, J., & Repenning, N. 2002. Disaster Dynamics: Understanding the Role of Quantity in Organizational Collapse. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47: 1–30
  • Schilling, M. A. 2000. Toward a General Modular Systems Theory and its Applicability to Interfirm Product Modularity. Academy of Management Review, 25(2): 312–334
  • Siggelkow, S. 2002. Evolution toward Fit. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, pp. 125–159
  • Simon, H. 1996 (1969; 1981) The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd Edition) MIT Press
  • Smith, Edward. 2006. Complexity, Networking, and Effects Based Approaches to Operations] by Edward
  • Snowden, D.J. Boone, M. 2007. "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review, November 2007, pp. 69–76.
  • Weick, K. E. 1976. Educational Organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1): 1–19
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