Lissack: Editor's Note (3.3)

This issue of Emergence has a focus on institutions and institutional theory. Given the unsettling events of September 11, such a focus seems timely. Americans have taken to questioning the sanctity, boundaries, and security of their institutional arrangements. September 12 was a “different world” to many, yet institutional theory has little to say about how that could be or what it means. The authors in this issue have some ideas. The prescience here is not about September 11 but about the role that complexity-type thinking can have in addressing questions about institutions, their roles, and their identities.

In “Conceptual Bonds: Network Analysis as a Way of Understanding Institutional Rigidity,” Stephen Standifird suggests that “past empirical research has failed to uncover the potential explanatory power of institutional theory.” He associates this failure with the complexity of the environment that institutions face and the absence of an explicit means of dealing with such complexity in institutional theory. Standifird suggests that “conceptual bonds” are a necessary but missing element of the analysis:

Conceptual bonds refer to the mental linkages that occur between individual firms. These linkages are formed when one firm establishes another (consciously or unconsciously) as an example of appropriate behavior. Correspondingly, conceptual bonds serve as the primary source of cognitively influenced institutional behavior. Unlike formal linkages, conceptual bonds cannot be readily observed. Instead, they reside within the perceptions of individual participants. The conceptual bonds of an institution become a function of the collective conceptual agreement among potential participants.

He proposes an alternative research path based on the notions of networkanalysis and conceptual bonds, with a goal of better understanding of the source of institutional influences, and “greater insight into the complex forces shaping individual organizational activity.”

Wolfgang Hofkirchner adds evolutionary concepts to the mix in “The Hidden Ontology: Real-World Evolutionary Systems Concept as Key to Information Science.” Hofkirchner focuses on choice and discrimination as his definition of information:

The system assumes a form (a particular one and no other) and discards the old one, that is, it in-forms itself. The external event that initiates the self-organization process simultaneously provides the signal to trigger the information process. In so far as the system selects one of a number of possible responses to a causal event in its environment, in so far as it shows preference for the particular option it chooses to realize over a number of other options, in so far as it decides to discriminate ... to distinguish, is the generation of information.

When Hofkirchner's information ontology is added to Standifird's conceptual bonds approach to institutions, the source of ontological upset associated with September 11 becomes more readily apparent.

What Standifird and Hofkirchner take as a silent variable is the notion of representation—the summations, symbols, and signs that we use to represent a more complex reality. What we deal with is often a function of what we see. This notion is further explored in Daniel Svyantek and Linda Brown's “Stability in the American Automobile Industry: Insights from Alternate Representations.” Svyantek and Brown discuss the differences between traditional and nonlinear research representations and their implications for the study of system behavior; provide an illustration of the use of the phase space diagram to understandability and change in the US automobile industry; and discuss the results found in terms of the complex adaptive system and organizational culture literature.

While phase space diagrams are commonly used in physics, they have only recently begun to appear in policy and social science contexts. Such diagrams, however, are truly a different way of representing a set of events. The authors cite a recent study where “traditional statistical analyses showed no between or within group differences across the two groups of plants for the first two years of the intervention,” yet “lag phase space diagram representations showed that there was a drastic decrease in performance variability for the three plants receiving the intervention from the first to second year.” This representation better matched the perceptions of management that “things were getting better, although no statistical proof was found.” Which patterns count makes a big difference.

In “Managing the Emergence of Clusters: An Increasing Returns Approach to Strategic Change,” Todd Chiles and Alan Meyer expound on the power of seeing such patterns. They use the concepts of complexity “to develop strategies for catalyzing and guiding the emergence of clusters ... clustering is not simply a static location effect, as mainstream theories have suggested, but a dynamic process amenable to a special type of entrepreneurship … characterized by increasing returns to scale and entail[ing] collective action by entrepreneurs, policy makers, and not-forprofit officials.”

While the article focuses on managing the emergence of organizational clusters, many of the strategies addressed are applicable to other emergent organizational phenomena. The authors argue that a complex systems view requires the recognition that entrepreneurship is the collective achievement of numerous individual and collective actors and quote Donald Hambrick: “Until our assumptions square with reality, we have little chance to influence managerial practice.”

Eric Dent and Cameron Holt demonstrated shocking prescience in their “CAS in War, Bureaucratic Machine in Peace: The US Air Force Example.” This article was accepted prior to the attack on September 11, 2001. Parts of it are eerily prophetic and the topic certainly has a greater sense of urgency and relevance now:

As the US Air Force continues to be challenged by a lack of resources, coupled with a steady increase in global operational requirements without the benefit of forward basing, Air Force operations will becomeincreasingly dependent on organizational responsiveness ... Never before in the history of the US Air Force has the impetus for a renaissance of operational art into organizational method been stronger. The nature of modern warfare, the expanding roles of the military, and a scarcity of resources are driving the need to break out of the traditional mechanistic worldview. The challenge for the Air Force is to employ the new framework in operational thinking.

In “The Contradiction at the Heart of Complexity Science,” Peter John Hiett notes: “even before the discipline is fully established, complexity science has the air of something not being quite right.” Hiett claims that there is a tension at the heart of complexity science that handicaps it, namely that it both accepts and rejects analytic science. He suggests an alternative perspective which accepts that there are limitations to analytic science, but does not seek to find corrections for them because it does not see that such corrections arepossible.


This issue of Emergence is its penultimate regular issue in print form. The economics of journal publishing do not allow for us to continue in print form without gaining an order of magnitude increase in subscribers. Therefore, issue 3.4 will be delayed until early Spring of 2002 and will be the final regular printed issue. Beginning in Summer, 2002 Emergence will continue as an electronic journal. Details about this and related print publications will be available on the journal's website,, and in the next issue.

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