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Complexity and Organization. Readings and Conversations

Macintosh, Robert, Maclean, Donald, Stacey, Ralph, Griffin, Douglas (Eds.)
Routledge: London, 2006
ISBN 041535241X (pb)

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Reviewed by Hans de Haan
DRIFT-Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Cover of book The idea behind this book is to present a reader for anyone interested in complexity theory in relation with organisation science. The editors browsed through the body of literature on this subject, which has been around now for over a decade, and have selected some eleven papers. These eleven papers also roughly run from 'the early days', the nineteen nineties, till now, that is, some years ago. And of course some of their own work is present.

The papers are divided in three sections, which according to the editors represent stages in the development of the field and different attitudes to the applications of complexity. The first section contains papers that directly link complexity concepts to organisation theory. The second goes one step further and explores what complexity is for organisation theory. The last section has papers where complexity is way of looking at organisation.

What makes this book somewhat special is the way the papers are presented. This book does not give the standard edited book approach with an introduction, a bunch of papers and a mandatory conclusion or 'where do we stand now', instead the papers are presented by the editors and after each part discussed. Discussed is to be taken literally, since the discussion is transcribed literally. One can easily imagine the editors sitting relaxed amongst each other, reliving their scientific memories, up to the point where they include scenery like: "after lunch and a short walk, between rain showers..." What to think of all this? At least it's different.

Leaving the style issue for a moment, back to what the book intends to provide the reader with: an overview of a scientific field. Part one consists of five papers: "Chaos theory and Strategy: Theory, Application, and Managerial Implications" by Levy; "Conditioned Emergence: A Dissipative Structures Approach to Transformation" by MacIntosh and MacLean; "Surfing the Edge of Chaos" by Pascale; "The Science of Complexity: An Alternative Perspective for Strategic Change Processes" by Stacey; and "Chaos and the Strange Attractor of Meaning" by Wheatley.

As the editors themselves point out, these early works take complexity as a body of knowledge on itself and apply or discuss the application complexity knowledge on organisations. Thus organisations are viewed as systems exhibiting chaos by one, as dissipative structures or fractal structures by others. The papers vary much in their approach to this. Levy, MacIntosh and MacLean, and Pascale really try to put complexity concepts at work in the organisational context and even use simulation results and case studies to make their points. A more contemplative piece is provided with the paper by Stacey who continuously mirrors complexity concepts with their organisational counterparts and implications.

All the papers in part one take on the daring task of combining to completely different areas of science. The typical pattern of inference in these papers in general draws from two premises: 1. In complex systems we observe some behaviour (emergence, self-organisation, etc.) 2. Organisations are complex systems. Then some conclusion is drawn that common sense could easily have produced as well. I personally have severe difficulties in appreciating this kind of reasoning. I do think that organisations can be viewed and studied and perhaps even understood as complex systems, but for me this does not mean that conclusions can be drawn merely by analogy or the exploitation of the metaphors. The worst example is the paper by Wheatley. One is confronted with a story about the beauty of fractals and how it is so special that the structure of the whole is already present in the smaller parts, illustrated with a broccoli. From this the author concludes that organisations should have a fractal structure: every individual in the organisation should carry the central characteristics of the organisation as a whole. Why? Is the taste of broccoli a consequence of its fractal structure?

The second part was easier to appreciate. This part features three papers: "Evolving Complexity in Social Science" by Allen; "Speaking of Complexity in Management Theory and Practice" by Griffin, Shaw and Stacey; and "Emergence: A Construct Amid a Thicket of Conceptual Snares" by Goldstein. These papers do more than just use the complexity language. The paper by Allen for instance thoroughly examines how there is a trade-off between the complexity in models and their comprehensibility. He does this by exploring a fishery management system with models taking into account more and more complexity. The paper by Griffin, Shaw and Stacey tries to describe human interaction in organisations from a complexity point of view and the paper by Goldstein takes on a more philosophical tone by discussing the intricacies of the concept of emergence. What these papers have in common and what makes it a step forward when compared to part one, is that they dive into the mechanisms that underlie the complexity they observe, instead of merely using the terminology to label those phenomena. The added value is that conclusions drawn in this way then actually mean something in a scientific sense.

The third and last part again has again three papers: "From Complexity Science to Complexity Thinking: Organization as Simple Location" by Chia; "Learning as an Activity of Interdependent People" by Stacey; and "Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for A Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity" by Tsoukas and Hatch. For Chia complexity is a way of viewing organisations and his paper essentially promotes a certain holism. Learning is addressed in terms of self-organising communicative interaction by Stacey and a narrative approach is presented as an alternative way in treating complexity in organisations. These papers step back from the hands on mentality from part two; instead the emphasis is more on contemplating the complex.

This third part, according to the editors, is where complexity is at in organisation science nowadays. And this is interesting, since if the content of this book is to be viewed as the evolution of complexity in organisation the following line of development (slightly exaggerating, of course) can be seen: First, complexity is hailed as the solution to all problems in organisation science and it is just a matter of translating the concepts to the world of organisations. Second, the realisation comes that it might not be so straightforward and that one has to investigate mechanisms with models and find out what emergence actually means for an organisation. Then, third there is a relapse in complexity thinking, narrative approaches and some new vagueness appears. But this line of development could very well be credited to the choice of papers. Certainly the vagueness from the papers in part one has gone and a more modest stance is taken with respect to the promises held by complexity theory. But whereas the JASSS reader might have become enthusiastic in part two, where mechanisms and models came into play for this goal, part three may leave her or him somewhat disillusioned.


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