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Organizations as Complex Systems: Social Cybernetics and Knowledge in Theory and Practice (Managing the Complex Book Series)

Yolles, Maurice
IAP Information Age Publishing, INC: Greenwhich, CT, 2006
ISBN 1593114338 (pb)

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Reviewed by Chris Goldspink
Centre for Research in Social Simulation, University of Surrey

yolles The title of the work is full of promise. It is clearly a product that has been worked on over a long period - much longer than it took just to write. It addresses an area of increasing interest, the application of systems and complex systems views of organisation. We need a clear theory of organisation which deals with the dynamic character of institutions and which can guide researchers' and practitioners' response to complexity and uncertainty. Viability, which has clearly been a long term concern for the author, is an excellent focal concept - balancing a concern with both stability and change. Unfortunately the reader is likely to encounter challenges from the beginning.

On first glance the impression is of a book which suffers from some poor production. Even in the Introduction there are typographical and grammatical errors and, in the copy reviewed, a problem throughout of text fattening - inconsistent printing weight line by line - which did nothing to improve the readability of the tightly packed text. There are few concessions to the reader in the presentation. There is little use of space and there are frequent over-long sentences. The author does use diagrams and tabular presentation but these are often obscure and not well explained in the associated text. The prose is generally demanding and somewhat unrelenting. As there are 860 pages of this, the author asks a lot from the reader. This is where a good publisher and editor earn their money, guiding an author in how to present their ideas and then providing the quality of production that does justice to them. Unfortunately this book suggests weak editorial control.

Stylistically there are some problems throughout. The book is written in the 'royal we' despite there being a singular author. The introduction to each chapter, rather than contextualising the forthcoming argument, tends to summarise it and in so doing presents demanding concepts with little of what we might normally expect an introduction to do - to set up why the argument is important and to identify the warrants on which it depends. While generally sources are well acknowledged there are times when significant assumptions or assertions are made with little or no evidential underpinning. There is a lack of clear and systematic logic with the argument tending to wander, hooking in a wide range of ideas which are only peripheral to the central point being made. There is frequent use of imprecise linguistic devices - "might be", "can be seen as", "one way this has been considered is", "it can be argued". It is difficult often to know where the author is taking the reader or just what he wants us to conclude. There is no systematic introduction of and development of a core argument.

The introduction, where he could have set out a clear exposition of why the topic is important, is instead spent on a philosophical exposition which will leave many readers wondering whether to go on. Not only is this section rather turgid and demanding with the author invoking a range of concepts with which many will be unfamiliar, but about half way through he lets us in on a secret: that he is in fact using these concepts in a particular and idiosyncratic way so that even those of us who thought we knew them will probably get hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The exposition leaves the reader in no doubt that the author is well read but there appears to be little that is new - or at least new, coherent and useful. In the early chapters the author's treatment of frequently visited ideas such as the problem of paradigm plurality is dealt with less well than it has been by others, notably Paul Cilliers (who is not cited). Frequent reference is made to critical realism, but this philosophical position is not introduced nor is reference made to any of the originators or significant contributors to it, including Bhaskar.

There are grounds also for wondering about the author's ability to sift 'wheat from chaff' and his grasp of fundamentals. In chapter one several organisational paradigms are identified including the 'chaos' paradigm. I struggle to accept that Tom Peters take on 'chaos' has been constitutive of a paradigm! This is blended with concepts from general systems, complexity and autopoietic theory but not convincingly. With respect to fundamentals, the author states that a clock has an "emergent property of time"! This example is reused in chapter three suggesting it was not a momentary lapse. While very little is agreed about the concept of emergence, one thing that is, is that reducible mechanical devices don't give rise to it as a phenomenon. The less said about the categorical error being made between the measure of time and time as phenomenon the better.

In the end, despite my being very familiar with the concepts and issues, the author's self-confessed idiosyncratic use defeated me. It was often difficult to follow his argument and at times his novel reinterpretation of established ideas made them impenetrable. He may feel that there is a good reason to use the familiar in new ways, but if that is so, he does not explain himself. In the end we are left with a melange. There is a consistent 'flavour' but this falls well short of a logically coherent exposition, with a clear set of conclusions. In short, a disappointing response to a promising subject.


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