Organizations as Complex Systems – Hacker Noon

Excerpt from the ‘Social Design Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’.

“There is a simpler way to organize human endeavour. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what’s possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised.”

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Peter Senge, in his book The Necessary Revolution (2008), points out that “Institutions matter. Today’s world is shaped not by individuals alone, but by the networks of businesses and governmental and non-governmental institutions that influence the products we make, the food we eat, the energy we use, and our responses to problems that arise from these systems.”

Although some people believe that organizations can only function well, especially in times of crisis and chaos, by using command and control leadership and hierarchical structures, for Senge “a sustainable world will only be possible by thinking differently, by learning how to see the larger systems of which individuals and organizations are part and to foster collaboration across every imaginable boundary. These core capabilities — seeing systems, collaborating across boundaries, and creating versus problem solving — form the underpinnings, and ultimately the tools and methods, for this shift in thinking” (Senge, 2008).

In Facilitating Organization Change. Lessons from Complexity Science (2001), Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang present a set of basic ideas to see communities and organizations as complex, adaptive systems. The most fundamental feature of a complex and adaptive system is self-organization, the process by which an open system generates new structures and patterns based on its own internal dynamics. In self-organizing systems order doesn’t come from above or outside; it emerges from the interactions of the agents in the system. All living systems are capable of self-organization and so our communities and organizations should also be self-organizing.

We can ask ourselves under which conditions a community or organization seen as a complex system is sustainable. “The hitherto dominant conceptions of sustainability — i) remove negative environmental impacts and ii) maximize human and natural capital — are challenged by a radically different approach: iii) sustainability as maintenance or enhancement of adaptive resilience, the capacity to robustly preserve continued functioning through short term perturbations and long term change” (Brinsmead & Hooker, 2011).

Three factors influence the placement, shape, and power of the patterns that emerge in a complex dynamic system, determining thereby the sustainability of the system (Olson & Eoyang, 2001: 11–15):

  • Container/Boundary sets the bounds for the self-organizing system. It holds the parts of the system together. Within the container, new relationships and structures form over time. The container may be physical (for example, geographic location), organizational (for example, department), or conceptual (for example, identity or purpose)
  • Significant differences determine the primary patterns that emerge during self-organizing processes. A difference between two agents may be reflected and reinforced by other agents in the system, becoming a significant difference that helps generate a system-wide pattern. Not all possible differences between agents are significant at a given time.
  • Transforming exchanges form the connections between system agents and help create changes in the patterns around which the system organizes itself. Information, money, energy, or other resources are the media for transforming exchanges. As the resource flows from agent to agent, each is transformed in some way. These patterns of individual change lead, ultimately, to adaptability of the system as a whole.

Image Sours: Systems Dynamics Research Center for Latin America

Note: The next cohort of students in ‘Design for Sustainability’ are enrolling now! The course starts on October 15th, 2018 with the Social Dimension. This section was initially authored by José Luis Escorihuela (Ulises) and revised by Daniel Wahl in 2016.

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