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Is organisational complexity always complex?

Is everything in your organisation complex?  More and more managers are talking about how complex their environments are and how their day-to-day work is now driven by complexity.  So, what/where is the tipping point from simple, to complicated, to complex?  Are they actually nested within the same environment?  Do we need to be able to differentiate between the three?

Perhaps we need to appreciate our wider context in order that we, as people in an organisation, can appreciate the size (scope and scale) of the environment we operate in, our ignorance (or lack of knowledge) of what forms to constitute our environment, and the variety that exists within the boundaries of our environment.  To do this perhaps we need to view our environment in a different way, scale it, so that we can appreciate the diversity of its parts in abstraction.

This led us to start looking into models that allow the simple, complicated and complex to co-exist within the same environment, as a way to illustrate to managers that not everything in the organisational environment should be considered as complex – Enter Boulding’s hierarchy of complexity (1956).

This diagram is our ongoing work that looks to map organisational complexity against Boulding’s hierarchy.  The Organisational Complexity diagram is designed as a conversation starter, for those interested, and is a work in progress — Boulding’s original hierarchy follows after the diagram.  The intention is for organisations to better understand size, ignorance and variety in relation to their environment.  It is also intended as away for Knowledge Managers to better understand the variety of system diagnostic/design needs that exist across the organisational landscape.

Adapted from Boulding's Hierarchy (1956)

Adapted from Boulding’s Hierarchy (1956)

  1. At level 1 are structures and frameworks which exhibit static behaviour and are studied by verbal or pictorial description in any discipline; an example being crystal structures
  2. At level 2 are clockworks which exhibit predetermined motion and are studied by classical natural science; an example being the solar system
  3. At level 3 are control mechanisms which exhibit closed-loop control and are studied by cybernetics; an example being a thermostat
  4. At level 4 are open systems which exhibit structural self-maintenance and are studied by theories of metabolism; an example being a biological cell
  5. At level 5 are lower organisms which have functional parts, exhibit blue-printed growth and reproduction, and are studied by botany; an example being a plant
  6. At level 6 are animals which have a brain to guide behaviour, are capable of learning, and are studied by zoology; an example being an elephant
  7. At level 7 are people who possess self-consciousness, know that they know, employ symbolic language, and are studied by biology and psychology; an example being any human being
  8. At level 8 are socio-cultural systems which are typified by the existence of roles, communications and the transmission of values, and are studied by history, sociology, anthropology and behavioural science; an example being a nation
  9. At level 9 are transcendental systems, the home of “inescapable unknowables”, and which no scientific discipline can capture; an example being the idea of God

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5 comments on “Is organisational complexity always complex?

  1. Stephen Bounds
    December 3, 2012

    Hi David,

    Interesting as always. However, it seems to me that Boulding’s hierarchy is explicitly premised on the way individual humans experience intelligence (ie machines < living cells < plants < people < society).

    There doesn't appear to be space for embracing other forms of intelligence — I'm thinking here of the hive mind of bees and the distributed cognition of slime molds — and to my mind these are more relevant to understanding organisations in a scientific sense.

    I'm increasingly comfortable with the idea that there are in fact as many kinds of intelligence as there are expressions of DNA proteins. And much as different forms of eye aren't "better" or "worse" but just adaptive to suit a niche, so organisational intelligence may be a far more nuanced proposition than a hierarchy or maturity matrix model will permit…

    • David Griffiths
      December 4, 2012

      Hi Stephen,

      Good points, as always. One thing from our perspective, this is not so much about the hierarchy, but the range of systems that exist within the organisational environment (from the static and zero peturbation effect through to the chaotic and infinite peturbation effect). We’re hoping that the adaptation of the hierarchy model can serve to illustrate the range of system complexity that can exist within the organisation (beginning with the static)… we’re still working on a couple aspects, which is why I wanted to gather wider opinion, and we’ll see where it goes over the next couple of months.

      Can I ask, do you think levels 5 and 6 cover off your concerns with regard to alternate forms of ‘intelligence’; my view being that the complexity of the associated ‘intelligence’ seems to be accounted for in Boulding’s work? This isn’t my area of expertise, but in my mind it does seem to satisfy what you are speaking about:

      At level 5 are lower organisms which have functional parts, exhibit blue-printed growth and reproduction, and are studied by botany; an example being a plant
      At level 6 are animals which have a brain to guide behaviour, are capable of learning, and are studied by zoology; an example being an elephant

  2. Stephen Bounds
    December 4, 2012

    Hi David,

    I’ve thought a bit more about why I’m uneasy.

    I think it’s because the levels of organisational complexity proposed seem to assume top-down control, and implicitly the “innate” superiority of leaders to control and lead.

    It’s only at level 8 and above that network effects are even acknowledged, which implies that at the intra-organisational level they either don’t exist or aren’t very important.

    By recognising that distributed cognition can impact on results at much lower levels (at least level 5 and up, but arguably as low as level 3), it opens the door for alternate models of problem solving and authority.

    (Boulding’s model isn’t directly relevant to that reflection, even though I do have some concerns with it still.)

    • David Griffiths
      December 4, 2012

      Hmmm… I do see your point. From my perspective the characteristics of the model do not have to exist in terms of a top-down view (though I see how it could be interpreted that way) – what I mean by this is that in any given team you will have ‘workers’, ‘supervisors’ and ‘leaders’ (I know Arthur Shelley over at Organizational Zoo would argue for far greater diversity than that, but I’m keeping it simple with the three broad categories). From that perspective, I would argue for emergence of complexity (cognitive in this case) according to the level of critical thinking, networking, awareness etc.
      What do you think?
      I wonder if a ‘web’ based infographic might serve the purpose better…hmmm

      • Stephen Bounds
        December 4, 2012

        Yes … I know you “get” it from reading your other work of course, and the same with Arthur.

        But I’m always conscious that our work in KM is prone to misinterpretation (everything from Cynefin to DIKW) and this diagram, read literally, probably wouldn’t aid understanding by an outsider.

        PS You should read about the organisational structure of Valve if you haven’t already … quite literally the flattest organisation I’ve ever seen. The only person with theoretically greater authority than another is the sole owner of the company, and he quite conscious disavows that power except to enforce the flat model of working (if that makes sense).

So, what do you think?

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