Chaos, complexity, and CASes
Stephen Bounds — Sun, 15/12/2013 - 11:58
In a recent post, William Powell put forward the theory that culture is chaotic. I commented, suggesting that complex adaptive systems were a more appropriate starting point and hoping to start a dialog.
The response wasn't encouraging (a good illustration of the difficulty of engaging with high attachment, high interest viewpoints). I've decided that it would be more polite to explain my reasoning here rather than hijacking William's blog in a non-productive debate.
What is chaos theory?
Chaos theory defines the behaviour of deterministic systems that are highly sensitive to their initial starting point. "Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such [chaotic] systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible ... even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved." (from Wikipedia; my emphasis)
How does a complex system differ from a chaotic system?
The most important aspect of an complex system is its non-determinism. That is, from any system state at time X it is not possible to predict its state at time X+1, regardless of measurement accuracy. This is different from a chaotic system, in which prediction would be possible in a theoretical world that allowed for perfect measurement. (Note that this is in practice not possible, due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Theorem; however the point stands and is a crucial distinction.)
What is a complex adaptive system?
A complex adaptive system (CAS) is a subclass of complex system in which a system composed of a number of agents gives rise to emergent properties, and can demonstrate learning (hence requiring intelligence as an intrinsic component of the system). Any organisation -- given that it is made up of a number of intelligent actors -- is a complex adaptive system.
Culture is the most obvious manifestation of this complexity, but even the most apparently deterministic business processes are affected by complex factors more than people may care to recognise.
In reality, the separation of "process", "practice", and "culture" in organisations is artificial and rather similar to any insistence on mind-body dualism. They are simply identifying different behavioral aspects of the same system. "Process" can be thought of as a voluntary or coercive constraint within a CAS to act in an apparently deterministic manner (either linear or dynamic/chaotic), whereas "culture" is a tag for those aspects which are recognised as dynamic and evolving. Regardless of the current level of constraint, the underlying systems complexity remains.
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