Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Managing Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems: A Strategic Perspective

Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Managing Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems: A Strategic Perspective

Article excerpt


In the uncertain and constantly changing organizational environment of the information society, assumptions of order and predictability have gradually had a less part in administrators' lives, since the relationships and the course of events in social complex systems like schools are not linear. In school environments full of uncertainty caused by numerous connections and various options, administrators cannot diagnose potential problems and opportunities by using traditional methods. It is almost impossible to have control over a vast variety of results of organizational activities in an ocean of complex relationships. Therefore, it is a more proper approach to define schools as natural complex systems dominated by uncertainty, rather than as predictable ordered machines (Mennin, 2010; Daft, 2016). With the widespread interest in the open systems approach, this new understanding has become prominent in organization theory and given a new impulse to managerial studies (Lissack & Gunz, 1999; Simon, 1962; Von Bertalanffy, 1950).

This conceptual study aims to discuss the analogies between schools and complex adaptive systems and to identify strategies used to manage schools as complex adaptive systems. The articles, working papers and books in English on organizations and complex adaptive systems published up to October 2016 were included and reviewed to elicit the strategies for managing complexity.


It is a difficult challenge to define the term complexity because of different definitions in various disciplines. Even scientists have not agreed on the definition of the term as complexity is a phenomenon arising from the interaction among numerous things (Johnson, 2007). Hence, it seems likely to develop a general definition for complexity such as self-organization of components in mutual interaction as hierarchical systems in order to build potential forms (Curlee & Gordon, 2010).

The most widely used definition of complexity is the one developed by the Santa Fe group. According to this definition, complexity refers to an integrated and at the same time so rich and varied condition of the universe which we cannot comprehend in a usual mechanical way or in a linear fashion. It is of course likely to grasp many components of the universe through usual methods; however, broader phenomena having more complex interrelationships are likely to be understood only with the help of principles and patterns. Thus, complexity associates with emergence, innovativeness, learning and adaptation (Balcı, 2014; Sherman & Shultz, 1998).

Complexity does not only refer to a number of moving components; on the contrary, it represents a system of components which interact mutually to the extent that it influences prospective events. Complex systems are composed of a number of interconnected components with characteristics such as self-organization, evolution and novelty (Lissack & Gunz, 1999).

Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems

Organizations are open, social systems which endeavor to survive in contemporary, unpredictable environments. Human resources, raw materials and financial sources provided by the environment are transformed to outcomes via technology. Complexity, in itself, associates with the number of different factors in external and internal environments that organizations are obliged to deal with at once. For this reason, the complexity of the environment and technology determines complexity level of organizations (Daft, 2016, 129; Scott, 2003, 230-233).

Simon (1962) holds hierarchical organizations up as examples of complex organizations. Hierarchy is a complex system built by interrelated sub-systems, however in modern organizations, the hierarchical perspective is not satisfactory to define complexity. Accordingly, Daft (2016, 18) mentions a three dimensional complexity; vertical, horizontal and spatial. Vertical complexity is the number of levels in a hierarchy while horizontal complexity means departments or professional expertises horizontally located in organizations. …

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