Use Of Complex Adaptive Systems In Organizational Studies
By E. Andres Garcia
New York University
Stern School of Business
Department of Management
44 West 4 Street, Suite 7-158
New York, NY 10012-1126
Organizations and other social systems can be viewed as complex systems which
continually generate, elaborate, and rearrange patterns of meanings (e.g.,
common norms, values, worldviews and perceptions) and interactions (Buckley,
1967). Mechanisms or institutions spontaneously emerge and evolve,
facilitating in a dynamic, distributed, mutually causal, and unintended
- negotiation of interpretations and attribution of meaning
- coordination of expectations
- interplay of cooperation and competition
- diffusion of information and innovations
- creation of individual knowledge
- codification of collective knowledge The conceptual framework or "paradigm"
of complex adaptive systems (and related ideas such as self-organization and
chaos theory) thus appears to be ideal for use in the field of organizational
and managerial studies. Yet this new paradigm has not penetrated very deeply
into the field. The knowledge diffusion process may first require that the
basic concepts be introduced to a new audience in an accessible language,
followed by their use metaphorically. Only then can one attempt to
operationalize the concepts for mapping the theoretical framework to the real
world and for empirical testing.
Concepts associated with systems theory and cybernetics have been around the
longest and thus appear to have already gone through the above progression,
becoming incorporated into the mainstream of organizational and managerial
studies, for instance, in works by Forrester (1961), Buckley (1966), Weick
(1979), Masuch (1985), Morgan (1986), and Senge (1990). Complex adaptive
systems and related concepts as metaphors for organizations have been explored
by Morgan (1986), Wheatley (1992), Daft & Lengel (1993), and Polley (1993),
among others. However, there have only been limited attempts to operationalize
these concepts, such as: for chaos theory, by Richards (1990), Gregersen &
Sailer (1993), and Parker & Stacey (1994); for self-organization by Drazin
& Sandelands (1992); and for complex systems by Sterman (1989) and Senge
This paper will examine key concepts associated with complex adaptive systems,
their relationship to each other, and their utility for organizational and
managerial studies. An attempt will be made to operationalize each of the key
concepts for use by researchers, including: self-organization;
mutual/reciprocal causality; nonlinearity/ discontinuities/ thresholds;
path-dependency and sensitivity to initial conditions; "chaos" and "order" at
different levels of analysis; criticality; fractal structure; hierarchically
nested spatial/temporal cycles; disequilibrium/"far- from-equilibrium"
dynamics; and system evolution/co-evolution.
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