Michael R. Lissack
If complexity studies have contributed anything to management, it is an increased awareness of the importance of boundaries, the limitations of models, and the dominance of context. The articles in this issue of Emergence echo these contributions by discussing issues of accountability, responsibility, and dialogue.
When organizations are discussed either in organizational studies or by managers in the field, such discussions often take the form of narratives. Theses narratives are interpreted much like literary criticism. The distinction between interpreting fiction and interpreting social activity, however, gets blurred in the retelling of the narratives and of the chain of retold interpretations. In the various retellings, the social and participative dimensions to the organization(s) in question are distorted much like in the children's game of “Operator.” Yet, notions of accountability and responsibility must both survive and transcend the blurring that results. Complexity studies has the opportunity to contribute by suggesting how such transcendence can occur.
Organizational studies and practices need to borrow insights from ethics, but the various accountability and dialogue practices in organizations will have their own way of being. What complexity studies cannot do is dictate what those ways of being must be. Uncertainty and lack of knowledge (or of attention or of perception) interfere with the notion of “must.” The limitations of models and the importance of context and boundary conditions suggest that complexity's contribution takes the form of suggesting possible pathways, possible structures, and the questions that both participants and managers might ask to assess whether the extant “possible” has some positive correlation to intent.
When reading the articles herein, the reader is urged to give prominence to notions of uncertainty, boundaries, and context. By so doing, the themes of accountability, responsibility, and dialogue will resonate more strongly and provide the opportunity for greater insight.
The value of such insight is perhaps illustrated by a recent conference experience where the insights and reflections were themselves the stated topic but were enacted only in their absence. This episode can also be called “how not to run a complexity conference.”
The conference was held with a complexity-oriented title by a group that attempts to address and discuss complexity as part of its regular practice (and at which on other occasions it has succeeded). The setting was a prominent academic institution and the co-sponsor was an eminent “hard science” establishment. One would have thought that the presence of hard and soft scientists meant that the organizers would have engaged in significant dialogue and preparation of how to get meaningful contribution from both groups. Alas, much too much was left to “self-organize” in a non-accommodating environment (both physical and structural). In the absence of meaningful boundaries and a supportive environment, self-organization is unlikely to be fruitful. This conference amply proved the point.
The first clue that there would be problems came when I ran into the conference organizer about two hours before the start of the event—he was relaxed and looked totally unconcerned. Observation 1: Complexity conferences involve and embody uncertainty and surprise; it is dangerous for organizers to be prematurely relaxed. If you are an organizer and are relaxed several hours before your event is beginning—worry, something bad is likely to happen. The second clue was evident on entering the conference hall: a raised stage for the “speakers,” tables and chairs at a lower level for the “participants,” and a microphone where we were to go to address questions to the stage. Observation 2: The participants at a complexity conference are likely to be as interesting and knowledgeable as the “speakers,” so the physical format should allow for and encourage interactions among the participants as a group and not be forced into the traditional academic conference model of all learning being broadcast from the stage.
The more serious problems were built into the conference schedule. A fabulous keynote speaker was not followed by interaction or dialogue but by a panel of unrelated speakers. Worse, the panel had not met before or interacted, had nothing to say regarding the keynote, and their facilitator had never interacted with them prior to their arrival on stage. The panelists seemed to have no understanding of the audience they were addressing and, while each was more than able to speak about something relevant to the audience and the stated topic, they proceeded to deliver pure science papers that were both off topic and irrelevant to the majority of the audience. (I have found that it is a mistake for speakers to assume that complexity conference audiences need to be read to; that mistake was also fallen into here.) Once the panel was finished, the participants were allowed to ask questions of the panelists. Dialogue and group interaction were restricted by both physical environment and the structure of the program. Observation 3: Complexity and emergence place a central role on loose coupling. If the conference environment and structure are tightly coupled there is limited room for emergence and an active suppression of complexity. Observation 4: Complexity conferences need to allow a majority of time for participant interaction and be structured so as to promote it, not discourage it.
The problems of structure and environment were compounded by a lack of preparation among the speakers. The conference call was reread to us at least a dozen times, most speakers read papers to us that we could have read for ourselves, little effort was made to understand the other presentations (and thus have meaningful dialogue among the speakers) and even less effort was expended with regard to the makeup of the audience. There seemed to be an assumption by the organizers that merely providing a group of high-level speakers in a traditional format would be sufficient and that all else would self-organize. As noted above, the issues of boundaries, uncertainty, emergence, and context were not explicitly dealt with—leading to deleterious results.
What should have been done? The same keynote speakers could have been followed by one or two discussants who were familiar with the material. This could then have been followed by group discussion (rather than strict question and answer). The panelists could have exchanged their presentation materials with each other and with some discussants (whose job would have been to interject potential relevance into the dialogue). Written papers could have been distributed for us to read in advance rather than our being subjected to a series of “readings.” Concepts of open space and dialogue could have been embraced rather than rejected.
Boundaries, uncertainty, emergence, dialogue, and context are more than mere intellectual constructs floating through the written work of the complexity community. They get embodied and enacted in our daily activities. They demand respect—perhaps not from computer models, but those are the subject of other journals and a slightly different audience than Emergence.