As a journal directed at both serious managers and serious scholars, Emergence straddles two worlds. The sometimes painful interaction between these worlds is implicitly the focus of the current issue, whose explicit theme is uncertainty.
This fall saw the printing of two books on complexity and management that contain vital advice for the practicing manager. John Clippinger’s The Biology of Business and Roger Lewin and Birute Regine’s The Soul at Work represent a new stage in management books in that they present ideas derived from complexity theory without feeling a need to teach the manager science. As a result, these books are the perfect read for a manager seeking complexity-related insights. In addition, they contain valuable nuggets for the researcher looking to examine complex human systems.
For example, many complexity books speak of “fitness,” but it is refreshing to have one saying that fitness is a forward-looking concept that focuses on survival and future success. The very notion that measures of fitness are prospective, forward looking, and subjective is important and often overlooked by those authors who choose to emphasize science in what are supposed to be managerial texts.
Clippinger’s Biology of Business is an essay collection by a number of managers and complexity theorists. He himself describes four properties—aggregation (things when acting together have greater properties than their sum), nonlinearity (small changes can have big and nonpredictable effects), flows (use of networks) and diversity (the extent of variety—that describe complex human systems and three mechanisms— tagging, mental models and building blocks—that managers can use to effect within such systems (Introduction, 10-22). The practical advice begins almost immediately, with such notions as the importance of identity, boundaries, values, and tagging.
Identity: In order for people and the units they constitute to interact they need discrete identities [and not a guiding control system]. What companies really need to think about is an “immune system”—a distributed that gives you a sense of identity and lets you know what—not just who—you are. … The company has to have its identity well established globally— but not centrally—in other words, within each employee. … Each individual should the identity … so that he can act appropriately even when cut off from the [central] information flow. … The purpose isn’t to repel outside objects but to interact … to transform and to incorporate. (Esther Dyson, xii-xv)
Tagging: Tags are a way of labeling and giving significance to something, linking it to action. How something is tagged defines what it is and thereby gives it an identity and role in a process of selection. Markets are not possible without tags. Tags launch self organizing behaviors. Tags are the outward displays of internal conditions. The interpretations of those displays are the actions taken in response to them. … Managers use tags to define the boundaries or membership conditions of an enterprise. … Managers of complex organizations must first correctly characterize their fitness landscape [build a mental model of their ability to succeed in the future] and then find the right set of tags. These tags need to be spread in such a way that thousands of stakeholders, acting independently, self organize together to achieve common goals. The leader provides the fitness rules, gives the right feedback, and culls the results until the enterprise is aligned with its markets. (Clippinger, 17, 67-8) Clippinger’s book provides the manager with a set of thoughts toward the creation of “how-tos,” while recognizing that within each enterprise the “how-tos” are themselves tags and must be customized for the particular situation. The very words and techniques chosen can matter greatly. As Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist, notes:
Management should create the conditions which will allow self organization to flourish … do not underestimate the power of gentle interventions, such as the provision of new tags, to increase the capacity for action [or to screw it up]. (Clippinger, 65)
Lewin and Regine complement Clippinger’s pragmatic advice regarding identity and tags with an emphasis on relationships. As they put it:
We are talking about genuine relationships based on authenticity and care … Interactions are the source of novelty, creativity, and adaptability … Anything that enhances these interactions will enhance the system … this translates into [recognizing] agents as people and interactions grounded in a sense of mutuality: people sharing a mutual respect, and having a mutual influence on each other. Care is not a thing but an action. … The soul at work is at once the individual’s soul being allowed to present in the workplace and it is the emergence of the collective soul of the organization. To engage the soul at work is to be alert to the unfolding and the unexpected that are inherent in complex systems. (9-22)
One lesson common to the Clippinger and Lewin/Regine books is the concept that the successful manager is one who has developed the ability to perceive the “weak signals of change” and act on them in alignment with his or her organization and its stakeholders’ multiple identities. That ability can only be enhanced by exposure to new ideas and to thoughts that jar one’s existing mental models and lead to re-examination of thoughts otherwise trapped by inertia. Such is the architecture of Gehry’s Bilbao museum, and the art of many a contemporary artist. This volume of Emergence extends such jarring to the world of the manager. Much of the text that follows is academic not managerial, yet the practicing manager is urged to find the time to try it. Do not strain to understand each nuance or subtlety, but let the recesses of your mind drift as you read to new thoughts regarding your work, your organization, and perhaps yourself. The result of such mind stretching will be the very emergence that is this journal’s main concern. Traditional academics will also benefit from the inertia-freeing jars caused by reaction to these articles, none of which can be considered mainstream.
Thus, this issue is about thought and fancies of thought. The articles began as presentations on the theme of uncertainty, knowledge and skill. But, as they developed, they too turned to the themes of identity, boundaries, tagging, and authenticity. Academics do not write like consultants. Their advice is to the mind and not to Monday morning. Despite the different focus, members of each community will gain new insight by capturing the flow of the articles herein.
You may notice that the organizational affiliation of Emergence has changed. This summer, the Organization Sciences Related Programs efforts at the New England Complex System Institute were spun off into a new entity, the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence (ISCE). ISCE will continue NECSI’s programs regarding the intersection of complex systems science and management. Further details are available at the journal’s website: http://www.emergence.org.