Peter M. Allen
Cranfield University, ENG
The variety and range of articles and authors in this issue make it a pleasure to read and to introduce. E:CO is clearly reaching out, trying to bridge the gaps between academics and practitioners by bringing together these widely varying articles that nevertheless emerge from the fundamental reality of complexity. It is paradoxical that what at first might seem to be the extreme case of difficult, pure theory―complexity science―really is about real life. At last it provides the basis for a science of real life, showing us the necessity of limits to prediction and to knowledge, and not only resolves the paradox of building models for prediction which if used would change the prediction, but also both allows and commends the vital role of creativity and exploratory behavior in the workings of the world. An unexpected outcome is that ignorance and in-commensurability are seen as important positive factors in learning―certainly a novel outcome of the new paradigm, and that I can now admit when I don’t understand things.
In the first academic article, Rita McGrath and Max Boisot use ideas from biology and biological evolution to underline the importance of hidden adaptability within organizations. The authors reflect on the question of how sufficient situational agility can be delivered for a firm, and how this can be achieved. They discuss the use of Real Options Reasoning (ROR) in facing the uncertainties of a situation, but argue that the adroit use of multiple interacting options can apply complexity thinking to the creation of value and to greater adaptability than the economic or financial treatment of options suggest. In fact I remember that one of the definitions of ‘sustainability’ that I used to fall back on was one about doing something but “not diminishing your options,” and the argument in this paper is a much more sophisticated version of this which suggests how you may actually achieve this.
Bob Ulanowicz discusses some of the fundamental issues of evolution. He recognizes the revolutionary importance of Order Through Fluctuation (OTF) that Prigogine introduced, but points to some limitations on its universality. It is true that Prigogine himself did not necessarily consider fully all the issues that emerge at levels above the purely chemical, and clearly OTF is not really about evolution in that a mutation or different type of organism or human is not a simple ‘fluctuation’―a deviation from an average density. New types of organism introduce new characteristic dimensions into the system and so the instabilities that occur are of a different kind to a simple fluctuation. OTF may set up the initial conditions for evolution, but then evolution takes over with a much richer source of instabilities and symmetry breaking.
Federico Iannacci considers the coordination problems in open source networks. This is important for complexity because this is a ‘form’ that is seen as embodying many of the principles dear to the heart of complexity enthusiasts. He points out that there is not really a great deal of knowledge about their coordination processes. He draws on organization theory in this paper and shows that large-scale open source projects exhibit three main coordination mechanisms, standardization, loose coupling and partisan mutual adjustment. The implications of this are described in the final sections where a new light is cast on the concept of structuring as a by-product of localized adjustments.
Ken Baskin’s article talks about storytelling as a fundamental defining characteristic of humans. The transition through reinforcement from ante-narrative, through narrative to myth seems plausible, and perhaps even more so if we look at storytelling not just as ‘sense-making’, but as an act that creates sense, and this either is eroded by experience, or reinforced and raised up into myth. This triggered some thoughts in me about mathematical modelling. To me mathematical models are also a form of story, articulating beliefs about a situation. They have the disadvantage that they must be closed in order to run, but the advantage that with the addition of some noise or shocks, they can tell us things we never knew―things that were not in the elements of the story. Stories and models both filter out ‘noise’ from ‘signal’ but this is an experience based capacity. By running these things through in real life, we can either find that we mistook the filter, or that the noise or signal have changed.
Halloy and Lockwood remind us of what dangers lurk in translating what is ‘natural’ into what ‘ought to be’. As with the initial social interpretations of Darwin’s ideas, there is a danger that a power law distribution that is revealed somewhere could be raised up into an expression of ‘natural order’, and given some kind of normative justification. In realty, we should question everything, and not look for simple answers that absolve us from difficult decisions and value judgements.
Dave Snowden―from the frontier―needs little introduction, as it is itself an introduction to this feature in future issues. However, it raises some profound issues about management, such as that of drawing general conclusions from case studies without testing whether they are really necessary and sufficient. Clearly, the warning offered to us by what happened to many of the ‘excellent’ in In search of excellence is an important lesson in science. Another telling point that is important for those of us who work in the complexity field comes from Dave’s reading of Isaiah Berlin’s Three critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Harmann, Herder (2000: Princeton University Press) saying that “we do not in fact challenge the value of the enlightenment, but we deny its universality.” Yes indeed as we do not want, in our enthusiasm to show the inadequacy of the rational view, to re-open the door to witchcraft, magic and the idea that all views are equally tenable. In a Forum article Ron Schultz explores the meaning of a culture of emergence, by talking about the origins and experience of a particular example that provides the ingredients for creative interaction and a ferment of ideas. Such things are rare they should be cherished.