Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Use of Complex Adaptive Systems as a Generative Metaphor in an Action Research Study of an Organisation

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Use of Complex Adaptive Systems as a Generative Metaphor in an Action Research Study of an Organisation

Article excerpt

Understanding the dynamic behaviour of organisations is challenging and this study uses a model of complex adaptive systems as a generative metaphor to address this challenge. The research question addressed is: How might a conceptual model of complex adaptive systems be used to assist in understanding the dynamic nature of organisations? Using an action research methodology, 6 Air Force internal management consulting teams were exposed to overlapping attributes of complex adaptive systems. The study shows that participants found the attributes valuable in understanding the dynamic nature of organisations; however they did present challenges for understanding. Despite being challenging to understand, using complex adaptive systems to understand organisations, particularly as dynamic systems, is of value. Key Words: Complex Adaptive Systems, Complexity, Metaphor, Organisation, and Action Research

Obviously, this is an act of the imagination. Things are perceived, of course, partly by the naked eye and partly by the mind, which fills the gaps with guesswork based on learning and experience, and thus constructs a whole out of the fragments that the eye can see. (Clausewitz, 1976, p. 109)


Empirical evidence and a wealth of managerial experience suggest that organisational interventions undertaken in isolation (i.e., without consideration of effects on the organisation as a whole) vary widely in their level of effectiveness. While interventions are perceived to generate improvements, these improvements may be short term in nature and the dynamic aspect of organisational behaviour may not be recognized (Kiehne, 2003). As Sterman (2001) notes, "the complexity of the systems in which we are embedded overwhelms our ability to understand them. The result is that many seemingly obvious solutions to problems fail or actually worsen the situation" (p. 15).

There is now much commentary on the potential utility of complex adaptive systems (or complexity theory) in assisting understanding in many academic disciplines (Mainzer, 1994). Complex adaptive systems involve phenomena which are characterised by the interactions of numerous individual agents or elements that self-organise at a higher systems level, and then show emergent and adaptive properties not exhibited by the individual agents. It advocates the concept of an organisation being adaptive to its environment (Doolittle, 2002). In this paper I describe the use of one model of complex adaptive systems as a generative metaphor to assist in enabling members of an organisation to better understand its dynamic nature. The paper commences with a short literature review before moving on to a discussion of the research opportunity that presents itself. A discussion of the action research method employed, and the theoretical implications of the findings are then presented.

Literature Review

Leaders and managers, if not all of us, have a tendency to interpret experience as a series of events. We are taught from an early age that every event has a cause which, in turn, is an effect of some still earlier cause (Brodnick & Krafft, 1997). This event-oriented, open-loop worldview leads to an event-oriented, reactionary approach to problem-solving. Experiments in causal attribution show people tend to assume each event has a single cause and often cease their search for explanations when the first sufficient cause is found (Sterman, 2001). An aspect of non-linearity is that cause and effect are distant in time and space (Brodnick & Krafft). When this is combined with our linear thinking, we tend to look for causes near the events we seek to explain. Sterman (2000) says that our attention is drawn to the symptoms of difficulty rather than the underlying cause, and calls this counter-intuitiveness. Intuition is a term sometimes used in discussion about complex systems. Wheatley (2006) argues that this intuition is a function of listening, watching, and picking up subtle cues in what is observed; it is an ability to feel when something is not quite right. …

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