A review of Organization & complexity: Using complexity science to theorize organizational aliveness

Written by Jacco van Uden, Published by UPublish, 2004, ISBN 1581122225

Ross Wirth

This book is a self-published dissertation by Jacco van Uden using print-on-demand services. From an academic perspective, it lacks the organization and tight writing style normally found in dissertations. Further, the support for “organizational aliveness” rests more on a stakeholder model of organizations than a foundation of complexity theory. For the general reader, the flow of the book would have benefited from additional editing for better organization of content and elimination of superfluous material. It is also hard to categorize the book since parts make up an interesting case study of strategic change while the connection to complexity theory is strained and not well developed.

The first chapter keeps the reader interested as the author relates a case study of a mediocre Dutch football (soccer) team as it transforms from a non-contender with limited fan support to a significant, professional team with extensive financial activity and a well groomed fan base. This material is extracted from official media originating from the organization, which is then compared to an alternate version of the organizational transformation using other media sources that include interviews with many of the stakeholders who were involved in the change process. In this manner, the book presents an interesting contrast in how the organization portrayed itself publicly during this transformation with how others saw the transformation from their perspective. However, and this is a significant point, the author attempts to position this alternate viewpoint of the case within the framework of complexity theory as applied to an organization. To this reviewer, the connection was not clearly developed and otherwise distracted from what would have been an interesting read of a strategic transformation.

The chapter on organizational aliveness focuses more on systems thinking and organizational culture than what the author means by “aliveness.” Van Uden (p. 12) also raises some doubts of a living organization when writing “I do not believe one could really prove organizations to be alive. What we can do instead is ascribe ‘features of aliveness’ to organizations.” References to the many books and articles advocating a view of organizations as organic or living organizations were overlooked and may have provided better support for viewing organizations as complex entities with emergent properties. This material debating organizations as complex entities worthy of study beyond metaphoric comparisons is sadly missing. What is really being contrasted in the book is the view of the organization as a tool within a change program to accomplish specific, personal goals verses an organization that emerges from multiple stakeholders influencing how the organization evolves. Specific references to emergence are limited and some of the material on complexity can be found in an earlier co-authored article (van Uden, et al., 2001) where the presentation is somewhat cleaner. Further, other than simple emergence, much of this discussion of complexity and the terminology normally related to the field seem out of place relative to the case being studied.

The comparison of organization as tool versus organization as emergent phenomenon could have been greatly simplified. Further, the fact that organization history can be related from different perspectives with multiple agents being capable of driving organizational outcome falls far short of convincing the reader that “organizations live lives of their own” (p. 73). The closest the author gets to organizational aliveness is conceptually relating aliveness to organizational culture and the time it took organizational theorists to recognize organizational culture as separate from the structural parts of the organization. As van Uden said, eventually “organizations will be said to live lives of their own if we manage to successfully attribute ‘indicators of aliveness’ to organization[s]” (p. 86). A clear path to this acceptance of organizational aliveness is not evident from the alternate interpretation of the case study presented here.

Not to be overly critical, this book does provide the reader insight into a very interesting case study of strategic transformation and how the change process can be viewed from different perspectives. Where it leaves the reader wanting more is in presenting organizations as capable of being analyzed as complex systems without being limited to metaphors of complexity found in biological and physical systems. The alternate interpretation of the case study could have just as easily have been found in a traditional discussion of organizational strategy.

This book is available at:

http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=R04EFhmARw&isbn=i58n 22225&itm=l

Also, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1581122225/qid=1115678351/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-2961576-2092922?v=glance&=books



van Uden, J., Richardson, K. A. and Cilliers, P. (2001). “Postmodernism revisited? Complexity science and the study of organisations,” Tamara: Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science [Online], 1(3), 53-67. Available: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4007/is_200101/ai_n8939724 [2005, May 6].