Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Assessing Organizational Capacity to Adapt

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Assessing Organizational Capacity to Adapt

Article excerpt

Currently 65-70 percent of organizational change efforts fail. This paper suggests that the dominant, linear approaches to organizational change may be less functional than complexity analyses and approaches to organizational change. Focusing on self-organizing rather than linear relationships, the author attempts to distinguish organizational capacity for adaptability among different organizational patterns identified by Glor (2001a, 2001b), emphasizing the three complex factors of individuals, social dynamics, and the challenge of implemention. It defines adaptation using criteria drawn from the theory of complex adaptive systems: variety, reactivity, and capacity for self-organized emergence. At a conceptual level, the analysis is able to identify varying capacities for adaptation among the different organizational patterns, some of them surprising.

Introduction

Scientific domains now largely recognize that natural phenomena at their extremes of smallness andlargeness cannot, finally, be reduced to basic elements. The quantum mechanics of Max Plank was a key step in this process, leading to the development of quantum physics. Quantum physics is based on the discovery that heat and light (energy) reveal themselves in two quite different ways, as either particles or waves, but never as both at the same time. Moreover, they appear as waves if the observer is looking for waves, and as particles if the observer is looking for particles. In other words, the intent of the observer appears to be creating a relationship with the observed. Many scientists responded to this knowledge by intensifying their efforts to break particles and waves, their molecules, atoms, and their structures, into smaller and smaller pieces, in order to discover their basic building blocks, and a level at which they functioned individually and linearly. This led to the recognition among some scientists today that it is possible that the smallest particles cannot be understood as parts and that their key characteristics are their relationships and energy rather than their matter. Likewise, at the cosmic level, Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity and then his general theory of relativity posited that the relationships between time and space are the key cosmic dynamics, rather than the mass of bodies acting independently according to defined forces and laws. These findings and their broader implications are having a growing impact on all the sciences (Kauffman, 1995; Holland, 1995; Capra, 1996; Bar-Yam, 2004; Surowiecki, 2004).

After the Second World War, a small group of scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which had played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb, began to study the phenomena of complex behavior. As their work took on a life of its own, they created the Santa Fe Institute of advanced interdisciplinary study of complexity. Most of those associated with the Institute were part time, working at universities throughout the USA and elsewhere the rest of the time. A number of renowned scientists became involved, primarily from mathematics, the natural and computer sciences, and mathematics; the Institute was multidisciplinary from the beginning. Two social scientists were also associated with the Institute, namely an economist and a cybernetics expert.

While theory about complex adaptive systems was developed largely in the domains of the hard sciences, mathematics and computers, it also incorporated the work begun during the 1940s by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy on general system theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968), whose work had more general applicability. He identified the autopoietic (self-regulating) character of biological systems. Work on complex phenomena grew, but remained relatively unknown and isolated until James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) and Mitchell Waldrop's Complexity (1992) popularized it. Since then, use of complex theories has disseminated quickly, and has begun to emerge as a major force in the study of both physical and social phenomena, including the fields of organizational development, administration, and management. …

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