In the film March of the Penguins, as the penguins huddle together to escape the cold of the Antarctic winter, the narrator comments that they almost form another “organism.” From a complexity standpoint, they do. Huddled together to brave the cold, without apparent leaders, with no assigned sub-groups or counting off, the penguins shuffle themselves so that each penguin has time in the precious, warmer center of the “all-penguin.” This is a perfect example of a self-organizing system or a complex adaptive entity.
In what was itself an emergent process (Bloch et al., in press), we identified three organizations whose respective origins and ongoing operations were neither centralized nor decentralized, but, in a manner unique to each organization, emerging from the groups themselves. In carrying out our study we learned a great deal about complex adaptive entities, and we also learned about the importance of community and spirituality as potential sources of energy and renewal within organizations. In this paper, we detail our study methodology, our findings with relation to complex adaptive entities, as well as our findings related to community.
Through several in-depth discussions about the concepts associated with complexity science, we recognized that each of us was involved with, or aware of, an organization that appeared to operate as a self-organizing system. The first was a group of nursing leaders: people like emergency room directors, who have been supporting each other for 12 years with no headquarters, no officers, and indeed no formal organization of any kind. The second was a group of people who were working on spiritual self-development using a practice dating back to the 19th century. The group had grown from 10 face-to-face partnerships to more than 150 web-based practitioners. The third was a co-housing community, a community in which the members took responsibility not only for the smooth running of the physical space, but also for the social wellbeing of the group. We decided to further our knowledge of complexity science by studying these three self-organizing entities. We developed a guiding vision, and adopted and refined a set of concepts related to complexity science. Our guiding vision informed our overall research stance and approach. The concepts shaped our methodology and initial interpretations of our research entities. Both in turn led us to a preliminary set of observations and directions for future complexity science research in organizations.
We did not start out by articulating a guiding vision; rather, it emerged and became evident through our early conversations. The guiding vision, which continues to emerge, has two complementary ideas. First, we believe that chaos and complexity science provide a means to understand organizational life, a means that is not available from more traditional, reductive viewpoints. Second, we believe that by gathering and interacting with the stories and information about specific organizational entities, we learn two things: 1) we uncover patterns that help us better understand how these particular entities sustain themselves; and 2) we learn more about how organizations are complex adaptive entities in general.
In order to operationalize our guiding vision for the current study, we adopted a research stance that is grounded in exploration, discovery, and description of our interviewees’ stories. Drawing from Boje (1991), we recognized two pivotal elements in their storytelling. First, we were actors in the conversations we had with interviewees from the three complex adaptive entities. As such, we know that we affected the conversations to the degree that stories are dynamic and require the listener to interpret aspects of “story line, context, and implication” (Boje, 1991: 106). Second, we did not assume a priori how the three complex adaptive entities reflected particular tenets of chaos and complexity theory. Rather, we developed and used an adapted set of elements (see next section) to inform our overall perspective and guide our sense making (Boje, 1991). In essence, our comfort with complexity and chaos allowed us to help our subjects weave their stories into our ongoing conversations and create a meaningful context for our analyses and interpretations.
Theoretical concepts of complexity science
Bloch (2005) identified 11 characteristics of complex adaptive entities (CAE), characteristics that are shared by such entities whether they are being described in the physical, biological, or social sciences. This is not to suggest that these are the only characteristics or that the characteristics operate independently of each other. Rather the characteristics can serve—and did serve—as an initial organizing principle for our research. The 11 characteristics, and their relation to complexity science, have each been described more fully elsewhere and indeed have formed the basis of individual works. As Bloch (2005) has pointed out, others writing in this field might isolate a somewhat different list or combine the elements of this list into a different order. Indeed, as our research unfolded, Bloch’s list of 11 elements grew to 12. The list, which follows, gives an accurate introduction to the conceptual framework that we followed.
Autopoeisis or self-regeneration: CAEs are self-organizing, not externally controlled. They exhibit autopoeisis, the ability to adapt internally to changing environments (Maturana & Varela, 1980/1972; 1987).
Open exchange: CAEs maintain themselves through the ongoing flow and interchange of components or energy (Bateson, 1979). They are open to—and part of—their environment. Indeed, the definition of system and environment is a person-made construct.
Participation in networks: In these exchanges, CAEs are linked to nodes and networks within and outside themselves, and are part of dynamically expanding and contracting networks (Barabasi, 2002).
Fractals: CAEs are fractals of other entities, irregular structures with self-similarity at different scales of manifestation (Mandelbrot, 1982), patterns within patterns, stories within stories.
Phase transitions between order and chaos: CAEs are not static. They live in dynamic processes moving between order and chaos in the ongoing exchange of energy, forms, and components. This dynamic process of moving from one state to another is characterized by phase transitions that provide the opportunity for organizational creativity and emergence.
Search for fitness peaks: During phase transitions CAEs seek adaptations to their new environments. This is the search for fitness peaks (Kauffman, 1995).
Nonlinear dynamics: The movements in phase transitions are best explained by nonlinear dynamics. In the liminal state between order and chaos, transitions draw from multiple causes, multiple network relationships, and a continuing interplay of the internal and external. Thus, the effect(s) cannot be expressed by simple one-to-one regressions.
Sensitive dependence: Because the dynamics are non-linear, small changes may bring about large effects. The effect relies as much on the initial (and current) state of the CAE as on the perceived cause or change. This phenomenon, known as sensitive dependence, is a quality of all complex entities (Lorenz, 1995).
Attractors that limit growth: Several types of attractors may be seen to be operating as the CAE moves through its transitions. Some attractors appear to limit change and growth. These limiting attractors may be described as point attractors, pendulum attractors, or torus attractors. As the name suggests, a CAE shaped by a point attractor returns repeatedly to the same state as if drawn by a magnet. A CAE shaped by a pendulum attractor moves back and forth between two identifiable states just as a pendulum swings from side to side. Finally, a CAE held in place by a torus attractor moves around, and again around, in a circular pattern.
Strange attractors in emergence: On the other hand, a CAE may move through its transitions in a new form; it may emerge changed, bifurcated, or newly shaped (Lorenz, 1995). In essence, strange attractors yield CAEs that are neither linear nor contained; they lead to emergence.
Spirituality: CAEs always exhibit inseparability, connectedness. In other words, interdependence is a necessary characteristic of all living systems. Spirituality is the experience of this unity (Ainslie, 1995; Goerner, 1994, 1995; Kauffman, 1995).
Dissipative structures: CAEs are dissipative structures. As long as CAEs receive energy from outside sources, they can continue to self-organize, to renew. Closed systems, those no longer receiving energy, ultimately die (Prigogine & Stengers, 1997).
Our three entities
The histories of the three entities we studied are unique. Yet all three histories evince elements of complex adaptive entities, even in the brief descriptions that follow. We more thoroughly develop the manifestation of these CAEs in the discussion section of our paper.
In the mid-1990s, a small group of mid- to upper- level nursing leaders felt that developing their leadership skills via two-hour symposiums or all-day (even multi-day) training seminars was dissatisfying and ineffective. With the help of consultants, these nursing leaders organized a week-long leadership conference in which they quickly found themselves learning more and having more meaningful discussions outside the planned conference events—during breaks, meals, or at night. Consequently, a subset of the original participants decided to take on the responsibility of planning the yearly, week-long retreat at a farm in the Midwest that would encourage more meaningful discussion and dialogue. The curriculum they prepared focused on the exploration of oneself as a leader and an individual. The implicit assumption was that knowing oneself makes one a better leader and better able to help others lead. Initial attendees included a mix of original members as well as newly recommended members—a practice that continues to the present.
Recommended members go through a selection process that involves completing a detailed questionnaire about one’s motives, intentions, and desires for self-development. The curriculum varies each year, but remains focused on self-exploration as an individual and leader. Today, membership is drawn from 23 states and several countries. There are currently 130 active members, though over 200 people have attended the conferences. The Nursing Leader’s motto is simply: “Give what you can, take what you need.”
Mussar, a practice within the Jewish faith, dates back several hundred years, reaching its peak in the 19th century. The practice, which was almost completely lost in the Holocaust with the lives of those trained in it, was reintroduced by Alan Morinis (2002) in his book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. Mussar is about personal development with the purpose of deepening awareness about how one shows up in life. Within an annual timeframe, participants, usually in pairs, study one of 13 pre-determined traits (e.g., patience, order, humility, and decisiveness) each week. The 13-week study is repeated three additional times in a year. A San Francisco synagogue adopted this practice in 2002 with 10 people who worked with partners once a week and met monthly to discuss their efforts. Although the group found the time required for face-to-face interaction difficult to maintain, the real difficulties were keeping straight what quality was the focus for that week and what was the Judaic meaning for the focal quality. Therefore, weekly email reminders were introduced. Eventually, participants wanted more, and one of the original Mussar practitioners took the lead and created a website that included the 13-trait schedule along with key information and definitions about each trait. The advent of this website led to wider recognition as well as increased participation, growing from 10 to 150 members within a span of little over a year.
Many of today’s neighborhoods and gated or planned developments do not evoke the sense of community that was endemic to their forerunners. As a result, many individuals have invested—financially and emotionally—in co-housing developments. Co-housing is quite distinct from communes, co-ops, or condominium associations, in that it is a type of collaborative housing that purposely attempts to minimize the sense of isolation and alienation that many people experience in modern subdivisions. Its six defining characteristics include: 1) resident participation in the design and development of the community; 2) design of a complex that encourages community (such as traffic flow); 3) common facilities (centralized laundry, gardens, tool shed) that support private homes; 4) resident management; 5) non-hierarchical decision making through consensus; and 6) no shared community economy (McCamant, et al., 1993). The importance of dialogue from initial formation through design and development to self-management is a critical feature of co-housing. This dialogue is further aided by the fact that, although each resident/family owns its own home with its own kitchen, there is a common room and kitchen where residents share meals as often as the community determines. The first co-housing community was established in 1991; our focal co-housing development was established in 1992, making it the second oldest in North America. Today, according to the Co-housing Network (www.co-housing.org), there are 186 co-housing communities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
We participated in several in-depth conversations with key leaders and members of the three research entities. As mentioned earlier, we did not act as formal interviewers in these conversations, but were active participants in the evolving nature of each conversation. Our subjects from the three research entities included two leaders from the nursing leaders group and one recent participant of the retreat; the two originators of the online Mussar practice organized through a San Francisco synagogue; and one of the nationally recognized founders of the co-housing movement. We also talked informally with co-housing members at a meal in the focal co-housing community. Finally, we had access to descriptive documents, articles, and websites that informed our conversations.
We made an early agreement that at least two of us would be present for each conversation. We also agreed to utilize reflective listening and a small set of guiding questions to help us act with the progressing flow of each conversation. These questions included:
What is the history of your organization? What was it like before? What is it like now?
How did you become involved (including discussion of interviewee’s initial experience)?
What elements or practices are of particular value to you?
What is the glue that holds your organization together and what do you do to protect and perpetuate your organization?
What do you see as the opportunities for and threats to your organization in the future?
As shown in Figure 1, the overall context for our research methodology included several key components. First, we tape-recorded each conversation and also took notes that reflected our individual research training and selves as research instruments (McCormick & White, 2000). Transcriptions of each conversation provided us with a collective memory for examining the conversational data through several iterations in which we independently and collectively interpreted storylines and their implications for the CAE elements. This interplay enabled us to ground the meanings of the CAE elements in examples and shared meanings from the conversations. Our own conversations within this interplay became a hermeneutic process for interacting with our perceptions, interpretations, and feelings about emergent patterns in the data (Diaz, 2004). They also invoked the type of non-traditional research method that Wenger and Snyder (2000) argue is necessary to clarify the complexity among activities, knowledge, and performance.
Complexity science and the three entities
Each interview was rich in detail with respect to organizational birth, growth, and functioning. As shown in Table 1, the subjects’ use of language and descriptive examples evince many of the 12 CAE characteristics. For example, the nursing leaders, Mussar participants, and co-housing residents regenerate with new members in an ongoing, self-selective process fueled by personal desires for development and quality of life. They also thrive because of their open exchange that continually forms, reinforces, and expands their participation in networks. In terms of fractals, there is a discernable elegance in the way nursing leadership and Mussar participants reflect the whole of their respective milieus. Phase transitions between order and chaos are evident within stories of each entity and reflect both emergence and creativity. And for those periods characterized by searches for fitness peaks in order to adapt to new environments, stories of each entity showed how members stayed connected through both rational and intuitive means. The nursing leaders, for example, relied on email and phone calls to stay in contact with each other (rational). However, they also used postcards, pre-addressed by the members at their conferences to send to one another—invariably at times when recipients felt the need to connect (intuitive).
As can be seen through the historical timeline of each entity, there is a continual interplay between the internal and external. Their separate stories reflect how small changes have brought about large effects, for example moving the Mussar practice to a web environment, which increased the number of hits on the website from a low of 85 to 30,000 in a month. These types of changes are contrasted with attractors that have limited growth at one point or another within each of the three entities, for instance initially limiting the membership to those in the nursing profession. And yet, as in all CAEs, it is the tension between limits and growth that has paradoxically led each of the three entities to emerge into greater states of complexity, such as
Communities of practice and the three entities
As we engaged with the interviewees’ stories at this point in our research, we began to uncover other similarities among the three entities. Each CAE also projected aspects of community, particularly communities of practice. It has been said that there is nothing as invisible as the obvious (Farson, 1995), and we now look back and take for granted that each of our entities is a community of practice. At the time we first noticed, however, it was a discovery.
All three entities are ongoing endeavors, but what led us to our “aha” moment was our fascination that all three, though seemingly fragile, were able to sustain themselves over time while adapting, growing and thriving. It was at this moment that we realized we weren’t just looking at organizations, but instead, at something very familiar to each of us: communities of practice.
Wenger et al. (2002: 4) define communities of practice (COPs) as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” When viewed against the qualities of communities of practice identified by Wenger and Snyder (2000), the histories of our three entities show how they 1) are informally bound together, at least initially, by shared expertise and passion for the joint enterprise; 2) foster new approaches to tackling problems or challenges; 3) are all about bringing the “right” people together, and by “right” we mean that people tend to know when and if they should join because they know if they have something to give and whether they are likely to take something away; 4) are not mandated, and remain completely voluntary; 5) have built an infrastructure, but not a formal structure with respect to organization, including when and how often they meet; 6) measure their value in non-traditional ways, primarily through spreading their knowledge and learning through their (individual) networks; and 7) understand that the effects of, and value from, what they do are diffuse and often delayed.
Table 2 presents what we have identified as the key elements (life span, membership, purpose, interaction, effects) of a community of practice in relation to our three entities. Several examples within the COP framework do stand out from our interviews. First, the self-generating and self-limiting nature of each entity is clearly seen in the way that membership fluctuates. For the nursing leaders, a natural ebb and flow of membership is expected. Within Mussar, the variability in participation is part of the self-development journey. In co-housing, it is rare that a realtor would be involved in the buying and selling of a property since an active network exists for perpetuating membership based on co-housing values as opposed to market values.
The essential purpose of each of our three entities is the interaction between learning and knowledge. All three entities practice learning within their community processes. They share a pattern of practicing locally, whether that is the self in the nursing leaders group and Mussar or the community in co-housing. And they generate knowledge that is in dynamic relationship with others, such as the nurses’ belief that knowing self makes it possible to help others. Concomitant with their purpose as COPs, each of the three entities informally interacts with other formal organizations, but retains its independence. Lastly, like the drop of a pebble in a pond, the commitment of the participants diffuses a ripple effect to ever-widening circles of family, friends, work associates, and others desiring to sustain a model for collaborative experience and living.
We discern four particular lessons embedded within our overall research of the nursing leaders, Mussar, and co-housing. First, individuals came together in complex adaptive ways (CAEs) to create these three communities of practice. Members develop themselves and operate differently than in other parts of their lives where linear thinking and acting dominate. This is a critical finding as community is destroyed when its creation and development is treated mechanically (Gozdz, 1998). In a similar vein, our three research entities focused more on developing and protecting their processes, not a rigid structure, which helped to sustain each. The structure for each was also minimal and what structure was exhibited evolved with growth and change.
Second, the communities of practice studied here are robust and thriving and their success is constituent with the self-organizing and adapting nature of each as CAEs. As Van Buuren and Edelenbos (2006: 48) recently concluded, “staying at the edge of chaos for COPs mean that they not only have to maintain an internal process of coevolution between the very different actors involved, but also have to maintain relations of coevolution with their wider environment.” Success is also due to the passion that drives each community of practice, a passion that attracts people and relationships (and ongoing relationship development) who are both internal and external to the COP. The introduction of new people and the manner in which relationships continue to develop lead to further changes and adaptations. For example, no two co-housing communities are the same—similar, but not the same. This is also true for the nursing leaders in that each conference is distinct.
Our third lesson shows how nursing leaders, Mussar, and co-housing have integrated “high touch” with “high tech.” Given the importance of relationships and connections, each community relied on email, teleconferences, postcards, and/or web pages to stay connected. The Mussar community, for example, spreads information and shares learning both inside and outside the synagogue through an award-winning website. The Co-housing Network (see www.co-housing.org) acts as a clearinghouse for communities in various stages of development and actively coordinates tours of communities nationwide. And for the nursing leaders, their just-in-time agreement to be available to one another, as an individual’s problem or concern arises, occurs efficiently through email.
Lastly, we have found that our three COPs, as complex adaptive entities, redefine the notions of success, leadership, and control—all critical to studies of organizations. In terms of success, each of our interviewees echoed “sensitive dependence” knowing that small changes had led to larger, sustained effects within each entity. Our interviewees embodied the cliché of making a difference globally
Success also appears in their creation of “bi- or multi-competence” (Woog, 2005). People are learning within each COP and learning occurs between the COP and other entities through generous sharing across boundaries. In turn, these external connections create new competencies. One example is how the planning of a new co-housing project in a given city results in increased competence not only within the co-housing development, but also within the local governmental agencies, such as the planning commission and city council.
It was clear from our in-depth conversations that members of each community of practice do not “control” or “own” it. Instead, control is replaced by a commitment among members, a commitment based on trust. None of our research entities had extensive and substantive participation agreements. Moreover, a combination of commitment and trust appeared to engender participation that, given the moment, allows respective members who can best contribute to step forward. Each community of practice was started by a handful of people who have let go and stepped aside as others have come forward. This lack of “control” results in a very different view of leadership. Everyone attracted to a given community of practice has the potential to lead when they are in the best position to contribute. Although “give what you can, take what you need” is a motto for the nursing leaders, we heard similar statements from the Mussar and co-housing interviewees. To this end, leadership is more diffuse and widely shared within these communities of practice.
Conclusion and future research
Creating and sustaining communities of practice as complex adaptive entities is not easy. People live busy lives. Yet, people become involved, they find the time, and they participate. COPs create more energy to deal with a world that can deplete it. Members become healthier from being involved. They create new forms and relationships, in which their structures dissipate and form anew (Prigogine and Stengers, 1985)—a living birth, death, and renewal process. To complete their dynamic, they demonstrate transition states “where ... usual practice and order are suspended and replaced by new rites and rituals” (Czarniawska & Mazza, 2003: 267). They sustain this newness through the spiritual connection they feel from their interdependence. Indeed, it is within the dynamics of complex adaptive entities that people practice community.
The communities of practice are complex adaptive entities. The three communities of practice studied here have, to date, been successful. What this study cannot convey, but future research can, is the death or transformation of a given COP. In each interview we asked what the respondent considered to be a future challenge. Besides finding the time to participate and contribute, many respondents wondered how large each community of practice could become before it was substantially altered to such an extent that it was no longer recognizable. Inherent in these responses was a concern that it is more difficult to sustain connection and unity around a passion as the COP grew larger. This and other aspects of complex adaptive entities and communities of practice are especially fertile research areas for those studying complexity science in organizations. To this end, our study serves to attract more researchers to use complexity science in deepening our collective knowledge of organizational life.