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Complexity: Is it just a bit of history repeating (keep up or become irrelevant)?

The world is becoming more complex.  Complexity is impacting our decision-making capability and organisations that do not find a way to negotiate this complexity will, in all likelihood, fail. Sound like a familiar message?  The current feeling towards complexity is captured in the following quote:

The increase in differentiation and specialization has produced systems in which the problem solving capacity (dealing with technological innovation, organizational and technical complexities, re-allocation of scarce resources) of governments, central coordinating agencies or other institutions are disaggregated in a collection of subsystems with limited tasks, competences and resources, and where the relatively independent participants possess different bits of information, represent different interests and pursue separate, potentially conflicting courses of action. The problems we are confronted with cut across the boundaries of separate authorities and functional jurisdictions. These problems are the more pressing in a period in which all Western industrial countries are confronted with an economic recession and therefore. a shortage in means to finance the complex structures on which our societies are build. We have to consider the necessity of doing away with organizational inefficiencies to reorganize our complex systems so that they will with less costs at least maintain the same output. If we want to maintain our highly devel0ped health care, welfare, educational and other systems we have to realize that we must find means to increase interorganization~ coordination~ to increase effectiveness and efficiency, as we can not any l0nger permit ourselves to allocate unlimited amounts of public money to these systems.

The tone of that quote reverberates across findings from a multitude of today’s economic and organisational theorists/observers/advisors.  So, it might surprise you to find out that this was researched and written almost 35 years ago (van Gils, 1979, The organisation of co-operation). Compare it to the findings from The Economist Intelligence Unit (2006) or Deloitte’s Shift Index (2009 and 2011) and it seems that we are saying exactly the same thing, just at a different time and space (perhaps history is fractal after all).

The general awareness of organisational complexity has been there for a long time.  However, our individual awareness, well there, perhaps, is the problem.  Organisations have always had to deal with the complexities brought about by the acceleration of innovation and technology advancement (both feeding off each other, after all what is technology but an artefact of human capability); they adapt or they cease to exist, as has frequently been the case.  Each generation has its own view of complexity, of environmental accelerants that bring new pressures to bear upon Enterprise and each view is relative to the individual’s education, experience, culture, history, experience etc.

Some (individuals and organisations) will find a space where, regardless of advancing years, they can adapt, embracing change and keeping pace with the environment (even periods of punctuated equilibrium), becoming personally resilient and maintaining their relevance.  Other will be less adaptive, rooted in their ‘prime’ time, a space when their learning and experience (their relevance) peaked.  Here they find comfort in nostalgia, a time where they were most relevant, but their waking-sleep blinds them to their inevitable demise; punctuated equilibrium becomes the only option, but it is often too frightening an event to contemplate and these people, these organisations, find themselves becoming frustrated with their irrelevance and many will just give up.

We live in an accelerating, more connected, world.  We always have.  We will either adapt or become irrelevant.

Hmmm…Keep pace or become irrelevant (the same goes whether speaking of the development of individuals or organisations), has anything really changed?

6 comments on “Complexity: Is it just a bit of history repeating (keep up or become irrelevant)?

  1. keabotsa
    September 4, 2012

    Complexity is not history repeating itself, because if that means innovation would come to a halt. If history repeats itself then there is no need to grow instead a challenge is met by just retrieving an ideas that was used before, because is the same challenge repeating itself.

  2. Tom Ellingham
    September 6, 2012

    Hi, @Keabotsa – I don’t think David is saying complexity is the result of history repeating. Rather, it is the constant changing of the environment that causes complexity.
    And he’s right – the world is no more or less complex than it’s ever been. The challenge faced is keeping with the pace of change. It’s adapting to whatever may be round the next corner, predicting what’s ahead.

    On a related note, I recently had a conversation with a former law professional who was explaining the complexities of making decisions before the advent of IT, and the dangers of information overload.
    The decisions he made were no less complicated than the ones his successors make today, though the challenges faced were different.

  3. Pingback: Complexity: Is it just a bit of history repeating (keep up or become irrelevant)? | Fusion Network | Scoop.it

  4. MCHATOS
    September 13, 2012

    Yes I am with you Tom on the same boat,that complexity is cause vby the change in the surrounding.Because of this changes we are forced to be on the same level through keeping pace.Failure which then there will be drwabacks on progress and hence lead to complexity,where componets will not match with the current status at hand.There is need for adoption and adaptation as measures of avoiding complexity to impact decision making and capability of organisations.

  5. percy
    September 21, 2012

    I believe Mr Keabotsa is looking at it on a personal level. If complex decisions we face are repeatetive then there really in no growth. In order for you knowledge to grow and mature you hve to apply it in new environemts to gain insight and wider view into the world.Therefore on a personal level complexity is not history repeating itself but requiring knowladge generated from history to be applied in new,never before met circumstances increasing ones knowledge base.

  6. mverbaite
    October 7, 2012

    I believe that history does repeat itself and that people are the same. Thus the world is not more complex today than at any other point in the history of the mankind. Just because we live in (just recently) a globalised world and much more easily can get in touch with people than ever people does not mean that this easy and fast access to communication makes our lives more complex. We still face same everyday problems today as people let’s say fifty years ago – companies fight to get the largest share in the market, countries engage in war, people need to work hard in order to get the best jobs available etc.

    This illusion of the more complex world comes from the fact that today’s people are more aware of what is happening around us thanks to internet and media that the people in developed countries have got easy access to. And since we get to know much more about our world (in comparison to people who did not have internet) we tend to believe that our lives are more complex than theirs.

    I believe this article highlights this illusion and provides us with a valuable argument about the topic of complexity.

So, what do you think?

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