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Complexity & Self-Organization
by Marcia Conner

  Complex. comúplex (kom-plk-s/km-plks, kmplks) adj. 1. Consisting of interconnected or interwoven parts; composite. 2. Composed of two or more units: a complex carbohydrate. n. 1. A whole composed of interconnected or interwoven parts: a complex of cities and suburbs; the military-industrial complex. 2. In psychology, a group of related, often repressed ideas and impulses that compel characteristic or habitual patterns of thought, feelings, and behavior. No longer in scientific use. 3. Medicine. The combination of factors, symptoms, or signs of a disease or disorder that forms a syndrome. [Latin complexus, past participle of complect, to entwine.]

Complexity. comúplexúiúty (kom-plk-si-te/km-plks-t)n. pl. comúplexúiúties. 1. An animate or inanimate system composed of many interacting components whose behavior or structure is difficult to understand. Sometimes a system may be structurally complex, like a mechanical clock, but behave very simply. 2. A scientific theory that asserts that some systems display behavioral phenomena is completely inexplicable by any conventional analysis of the systems' constituent parts. 3. The quality, state, or condition of being complex; intricacy; entanglement.


Complexity Glossary

Serendip's Complex Systems Website

Sante Fe Institute

Berkana Institute

"I think the next century will be the century of complexity." —Stephen Hawking

"Ideas thus made up of several simple ones put together, I call complex; such as beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe." —John Locke

If you are just beginning to examine complexity and self-organization, I encourage you to review the following books and websites. This is by no means a complete list, but some solid places to begin

My introduction to complexity came from M. Mitchell Waldrop's book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Simon & Schuster, 1992). It was a fabulous place to start. This is a surprisingly easy-to-read work that will offer you a solid understanding of the issues and origins. The book was written by the same person who wrote the article on Dee Hock in Fast Company a few years back. Though now a little dated, this is still a good summary of the scientific work on complexity and its implications, with an emphasis on work at the Santa Fe Institute and the personalities therein.

"Complexity in action is a hundred, no, a thousand, no, a million times greater than complexity in theory." -Paraphrase of an old Taoist meditation saying

Other great books on complexity, self-organization, and fractals include:

A Simpler Way. Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. Berrett-Koehler, 1996. Provocative observations about the fundamental processes of self-organization and the application of living systems theory to the organization of human activity, by two leading organizational theorists.

A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us. Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahtouris and Brian Swimme. John Wiley & Sons, 1998. A beautifully illustrated presentation on the evolution of life on earth, highlighting the complexity and creativity of living systems and the growing impact of humanity on the web of life.

At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Stuart Kauffman. Oxford University Press, 1996.  One of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute provides an excellent treatment of how order emerges naturally - and possibly even necessarily - out of chaos. Profoundly important, and considerably more informed than better-known pop-science treatments of chaos theory.

Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos. Shona L. Brown, Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. HBSP, 1998. This book translates leading edge concepts from complexity theory into management practice. Each chapter focuses on a specific management dilemma and illustrates a solution. The authors help organizations find balance between too much and too little structure. They also encourage organizations to appropriately contextualize their own past, guiding them on when to learn from past mistakes and successes and when to break from the past to envision their future anew. The authors draw on the fields of science, music, and sports to illustrate their argument.

Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation (Complexity and Emergence in Organizations). Ralph D. Stacey. Routledge, 2001. Explains how the knowledge economy can be seen in a new light when considered from a complexity perspective. Stresses the importance of relationships as a source of, and influence on, information and knowledge creation.

Emergence: From Chaos to Order. John H. Holland. Perseus Press, 1999. A leader in the study of complexity demonstrates that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity - and that within the operation of these systems, certain essential patterns can be discerned. Those acquainted with chaordic concepts will see an immediate functional parallel between Holland's "rules" or "laws" and chaordic "Principles."

Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. K. Eric Drexler. Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1986. A very good introduction to the technology for creating self-replicating "molecular machines" that lies ahead. Read it with the social, institutional and economic implications of such enormously increased complexity in mind and it will dramatically expand horizons.

Fractal Geometry of Nature. Benoit B. Mandelbrot. W. H. Freeman & Co., 1998. The Fractal Geometry of Nature is a mathematics text, but even a lay person can pick out and appreciate Mandelbrot's essential point: that somewhere in mathematics, there is an explanation for nature. Path breaking work whose implications for chaordic organization are only beginning to be explored

Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Simon A. Levin (Perseus Books Group, 2000 pb). In what he calls a 'cautionary tale,' Levin asserts that 'Mother Earth is in trouble' as a habitat for humanity because of pollution, new diseases, and 'staggering losses' of biological diversity. Drawing on Lego's, Scrabble, and the Harlem Globetrotters, he writes of ecological systems, the environment and the biosphere, and concludes with 'the eight commandments' of environmental management.

Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier. Robert Axelrod, Michael D. Cohen (Basic Books, 2001 pb). This book draws on the principles of evolutionary biology, computer science and social design to explain the functioning of complex adaptive systems, specifically businesses, and how to improve them.

Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy (Economics, Cognition, and Society). W. Brian Arthur. University of Michigan Press, 1994. Arthur asks us to examine how our fundamental assumptions about the economy might be all wrong and far more complex than we've thought before. Much of this book first appeared in Scientific American February 1990. Article available in digital format.

Investigations: Stuart A. Kauffman. Oxford University Press, 2000. The three laws of thermodynamics have been summarized as: You can't win, You can't break even, and You can't get out of the game. In Kauffman's newest book, he suggests that the fourth law is: But the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.

Thanks to Tom Hurley and Joel Getzendanner for their terrific descriptions of many of these books.

The Meme Machine. Susan Blackmore with forward by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press, 2000. My most favorite examination of evolution and memetics (memes) examines complexity as it influences all aspects of life and society.

The Next Common Sense: An e-Manager's Guide to Mastering Complexity.  Michael Lissack, Johan Roos. A persuasive argument for a new way of thinking and dealing with the realities of modern business. This books offers ten guiding principles for any modern manager to provide a sense of coherence in the face of complexity. Offers five more steps for putting the principles into action. To see what Roos is up to these days, visit  the Imagination Lab Foundation in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Out of Control: The Rise of Neo Biological Civilization. Kevin Kelley. Addison-Wesley, 1994. A thought-provoking compendium of where contemporary scientific thinking about self-organizing systems and the technologies for creating them are leading in a variety of fields.

The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the emerging Paradigm of Evolution. Erich Jantsch. Pergamon Press, 1980. One of the first books to provide an overview of the emerging paradigm of self-organization, with an emphasis on sociocultural systems. A challenging classic.

Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the Midst of Chaos, Complexity, and Change. T. Irene Sanders. Simon & Schuster, 1998. This books shows broader applications for the idea that systems behave in orderly ways in spite of random—and chaotic—individual events.

Surfing the Edge of Chaos : The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business. Mark Millemann, Linda Gioja, Richard Pascale. Three Rivers Press, 2001. A provocative book about the parallels between business and nature—two fields that feature nonstop battles between the forces of tradition and the forces of transformation. It offers a new way of thinking about and responding to the personal and strategic challenges everyone in business faces these days.

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Tor Nrretranders and Jonathan Sydenham (translator). Viking Press, 1999. While this book is mostly about consciousness, a good portion offers a thorough examination of information, complexity, and order as a way to examine what we do (or don't) know. These notions are woven together as the discussion of how our consciousness works begins.

"The objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity." -Burke

Journals and Articles on Complexity

Complexity Journal from Wiley.

And Now: Complexity Theory. Harvard Management Update. March 1999. "Complexity theory explores how simple interactions among objects become something new and different over time. A cousin of chaos theory, complexity tries to find the patterns or "hidden order" by which an economy or ecosystem evolves. Tools based on this theory can help managers control systems involving complex logistics. Computer simulations are designed to spot emerging patterns and then adapt to changes, much as life itself evolves in response to changes in the environment. Uses for such tools range from managing production scheduling to determining customer reactions to new retail store layouts. Some of the new thinking on complexity theory argues that complexity offers not just a set of expensive tools but also a metaphor that encourages innovative thinking. Managers can use key principles derived from complexity to allow their units to "self-organize" into more efficient groups, and to find and respond to specific changes in real time. This article includes an annotated "If you want to learn more" section with information on the basics of complexity theory as well as on advanced applications."

Adaptive Schools in a Quantum Universe by Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman. Educational Leadership, April 1995 | Volume 52 | Number 7. An examination of the "new sciences" offers insights into new approaches to school improvement and provides practical tools and ideas for school refinement that can lead to improved learning for all students. Information from the new sciences—quantum mechanics, chaos theory, complexity theory, fractal geometry, and the new biology—can help educators rethink their approaches to school improvement and work in new ways within the principles suggested by these sciences. The new sciences reveal to us that we live not in a world of either/or but in the dawning of a world of both/and. Chaos and order are part of the same system; they exist simultaneously.

"It's much more effective to allow solutions to problems to emerge from the people close to the problem rather than to impose them from higher up."
-Roger Lewin

Websites & Organizations focused on Complexity

The Sante Fe Institute is a private, nonprofit, multidisciplinary research and education center, founded in 1984. Since its founding SFI has devoted itself to creating a new kind of scientific research community, pursuing emerging science. Operating as a small, visiting institution, SFI seeks to catalyze new collaborative, multidisciplinary projects that break down the barriers between the traditional disciplines, to spread its ideas and methodologies to other individuals and encourage the practical applications of its results. The Sante Fe Institute has a list of publications & resources on their website, too.

Serendip's Complex Systems Website

Complexity Digest

San Francisco Exploratorium's complexity exhibit

@Brint's Systems and Complexity page

Chaos and Complexity Theory in Education

Cybernetics, Systems Theory and Complexity

Nonlinear Dynamics and Complex Systems Theory (Glossary)

Complexity Theory and Management Practice by Jonathan Rosenhead. There is a growing popular literature on chaos and complexity authored by scientists of high reputation writing about research fields in which they are themselves active. There is also a burgeoning which draws on this work to address management concerns and practices, but whose authors are experienced in management and management education rather than in the substantive scientific fields whose findings they report and interpret. I shall refer to this arena as 'management complexity'.

Have other favorites? Let us know! Who knows what that one action will influence?!


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Last Updated:
August 2, 2007