It is amazing how the basic ideas behind complexity and the reality of evolution of structure and organization link to the fundamental questions that have been with us since reflection and thinking emerged on earth. In essence the Dao, 2500 years ago, had already pointed to the necessary incompleteness of any description, and to the fundamental under-determination of things. And yet many people still demand prediction and certainty, and vainly try to use “control” to ward off adaptation and transformation, and suppress creativity—at least for a time. And of course, such organizations play their full role in creative destruction, since having been created at some moment they will inevitably be destroyed by failing to keep up with the evolving system in which they are immersed.
In such a view, reality at any moment is a messy story of the interaction of diverse entities and actions, each with highly imperfect knowledge—and even downright ignorance—about what is going on and why. Indeed, we can ascertain that many of the players must base their actions on pride and overconfidence and an assumption of “above average capacities”, since any normal person studying the life expectancy of new enterprises and innovations would quickly conclude that—on the basis of any average assessment—they will not succeed. And yet the whole social and economic edifice in which we are embedded is the fruit of successive such hopeful impulsions, and the accretion of a small minority of the survivor strategies. If we are to gain anything from studying complexity and organizations it must be to indicate how to better “encourage” active learning, experiment and appropriate evaluation of the situation. In other words we must try to establish how many, and what kind of experiments we should be doing, and see management not as “control” but rather as setting the scene for learning enough about a changing, only partially known world. It is, indeed, ultimately this “ignorance” that provides the freedom and doubt that underlies evolutionary change through “exploratory behavior”—the latter being a necessary outcome of not knowing what to do, or of believing incorrectly that you do. And this is almost the opposite of the classical model of rational behavior. In modelling, this kind of certainty is falsely imposed by assuming rationality, or some other fixed rule, together with adequate information to ensure that each element has no choice, freedom or doubt concerning its actions. This is true at all levels of description from individuals up to societies. The remarkable implications of complexity for any longer term sustainability therefore is the somewhat paradoxical fact that a persistent organization or structure must be stable for a time, implying synergy between its connected elements, whilst also having sufficient internal richness and diversity of the individual interpretive frameworks that develop within it.
This latest issue of E:CO demonstrates the range of research and reflections that the ideas linked to complexity and emergence generate. We have a feast of interesting articles which illuminate our diverse beliefs about different aspects of the evolution of organizations and structures. In the first paper Mihea Moldoveanu describes how organizations can be modelled as cellular automata of rule based elements, with changing patterns of organization, and different ways of successfully fitting its environment and of being selected. The paper asks important questions about the meaning of a model of organization and what a modeller may hope to get out of such a thing. One important issue is the trade-off between their informational and computational complexity of a cellular automata representation, and its implications for the problem of ‘organizational design’.
In the next piece Leticia Andrade, Donde Ashmos Plowman and Dennis Duchon show that the traditional view of “conflict” in organizations as something that should always be reduced or eliminated is in fact wrong. When we look at organizations as complex adaptive systems then we see that diversity and conflicting views are the underlying motor of their evolution and transformation. The short term view might be to try to create harmony and consensus in any situation, but in reality we know that the inner driving force of evolution of complex systems lies in the microscopic diversity and differences between individual elements. From this inner richness arise possible new behaviors, new forms and structures, and so the long term success of an organization relies on the maintenance and renewal of diverse views within itself. This underlines a view in which society and civilization are based on a respect of “difference” and of the “other” as a source of alternative ideas and wisdom, as opposed to the simpler—but less long-term effective view—that difference should be eliminated in the interests of unity. Unity within individuals, groups and societies that do not respect internal differences, is really the kiss of death—the onset of mechanistic, unthinking behavior. Instead of focusing on conflict reduction, therefore, the paper advises managers to encourage mindfulness, improvisation, and reconfiguration as responses to conflict that enable learning and effective adaptation.
Robert Simpson and Roderic Gill explore the application of new approaches in organizational development and institutional economics to a communicative design process with application in design of social systems. These ideas reflect the recognition that organizational change—the emergence of something new—is an under-determined, real-time, collective process with a particular path that is a particular instance of the many possible things that could have occurred. Conversation is the natural way that this kind of creative process can actually happen.
Aliki Nicolaides and Lyle Yorks initiate a conversation exploring the epistemological implications of many forms that learning may take, looking at an emerging epistemology of learning through life that is increasingly complex. They examine the interconnections between: the paradigms of learning from experience, the construction of meaning, the process of inquiry and the principles of organizing found in complexity theory. Clearly, learning by experience is what underlies most organizations and operations in the real world and the very real limits on what this can achieve, explains the messy nature of our experiences and of reality. Not only that, but because there is no unique way of modifying our representations in the face of a difference between expectation and experience, the individual and social construction of meaning is a vital issue that plays an important role within a complexity view of evolution and learning.
The classic paper this issue is “The Meanings of ‘Emergence’ and Its Modes” by Arthur Lovejoy has an introduction by Alicia Juarrero and Carl A. Rubino. It was originally published in 1927 in the Journal of Philosophical Studies. Given the current controversy over Intelligent Design and Creationism, the paper is still of great relevance and interest. It also shows how difficult the issue of emergence has been for science to understand, since it had an underlying “deterministic” backcloth that made it impossible to deal with the idea of something coming out of nothing. But today, our understanding of complex systems leads us to accept a multi-level description of reality, and the idea of symmetry-breaking, allowing us to include a creative evolution within our thinking.
There are a series of further short articles which offer a variety of important thoughts. Ron Schultz discusses the emerging “Great Depression” of the 21st century in the United States. And Michael Shenker writes the first part, Universal Truths, of a series on Empowerment, which is about his encounter with Myron Cain. The next article is written by Pierpaolo Andriani and Alberto De Toni, and recounts an informal discussion with the remarkable Ernesto Illy, who is known for his coffee. The article is an interview in which he talks about his meetings with Ilya Prigogine and others, and we see that he not only understood the ideas about complexity and organization, but also put them into practice remarkably successfully.
The issue winds up with insightful book reviews of some excellent new publications that have just come out.