You are here

Organizational Forms in Response to Complexity


Organizational Forms in Response to Complexity
Alternative forms of organization
Network design
Some policy implications

[Parts: Next | Last | All] [Links: To-K | From-K | From-Kx | Refs ]

Part C of Complexity: its constraints on social innovation. Preliminary report for Group 2 on behalf of Mankind 2000 for the Journées d'Etudes (Paris, 28-30 mars 1977) of the International Foundation for Social Innovation. Published in Transnational Associations 29, 5, 1977, pp. 178-183 [PDF version][French version]

The two earlier papers in this series appeared in the April issue of Transnational Associations. Portions of this paper will appear as International organization networks: a complementary perspective in Paul Taylor and A J R Groom (Eds) International Organizations; a conceptual approach, 1978. The original appendix to this paper appeared in a forthcoming issue of Transnational Associations together with other materials on the distinction between "systems" and "networks".


As the following quotations make very clear, there is now a widespread recognition our institutions are unable to respond adequately in the face of the increasing complexity of their environment, particularly since they are handicapped by the attitudes and consequences of their own traditional approaches to such stresses :

  • Evidence is mounting that the environment which managers seek to control -- or, at least, to guide or restrain -- is increasing in turbulence and complexity at a rate that far exceeds the capacity of vide new and improved methodologies to affect management's intentions. Faced with the consequences of force-fed technological change, and the concomitant changes m the social, political, psychological, and theological spheres, there is real danger that the process by which new concepts of management control are invented and developed may itself be out of control relative to the demands that are likely to be imposed upon it . (Introduction to a 1968 management conference session of the College of Management Control Systems. The Institute of Manament Sciences).

  • Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines. (Bellagio Declaration on Planning. In: Erich Jantsch (Ed) Perspectives on Planning. Paris. OECD, 1969).

  • Scientists and business and political leaders in virtually every country are becoming increasingly aware that the human race is facing more crises than its social and political institutions can handle adequately... Many important steps are now being taken to meet these problems. These steps, however, are often shaped to fit existing institutional patterns or to be politically or commercially expedient, while other measures of perhaps equal or greater importance have not yet been started. Moreover, the multitude of crises and their complexity and interactions so overburden the mechanisms that have been designed to handle them that there is a valid fear that these mechanisms wilt break down at the critical worse . (R.A. Cellarius and John Platt. Councils of Urgent Studies. Science. 25 August 1972. pp. 670- 676).

  • Since problems were for so long deemed to be immutable, functions already assumed became more important than aims... In the sequel, within each of these functions, new goals were interred from extrapolations of goals already achieved, the functions defied the problems to be met, and reassessment of the problems at hand did not lead to the redefinition of the function... The rigidity, fragmentation, and institutional competitiveness of bureaucratic practices are obviously both causes and consequences of this state of affairs. Bureaucratic development is partly a result of the vagueness of aims pursued. The determination of new wever, to overcome these weaknesses, which also stem from the inclination of bureaucracies to resist innovation. For these reasons, contemporary societies are called upon to challenge certain forms of organisation that can no longer render the services they require, because in these societies, change and uncertainty have become the constant companions of prosperity. Thus, it has become a commonplace that many new problems, over the last quarter of a century, have been recognized too late by the government machine. which has often been moved to action only by the advent of a crisis... For this mason the identification of emerging problems is a function that tends to be overlooked by traditional public administration and therefore cannot be wholly integrated with it... (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Science, Growth and Society. Paris OECD 1971, pp. 60-61).

  • ... increasing specialization makes all problems more difficult. With more economic and social development, the subdivision of labor is carried to extremes never dreamt of in previous historic periods. The more effective and efficient organizations and planning bodies are those that operate for narrow and segmentai purposes, thereby rendering much more difficult any effort to achieve mutual adjustment or coordination. The more able, honored and highly valued expert is the one who works within an increasingly narrow sphere and who has great difficulty in communicating with other experts as well as laymen . (Bertram M. Gross. Strategy for economic and social development. Policy Science, 2,1971. p. 353).

  • Institutions, firms and (thanks to television) private citizens today receive critical information very quickly indeed; the aggregate picture at federal level is slow by comparison to materialize. To put the point the other way round, then, the body politic has wildly overactive reflexes. In the body physiologic this is the condition of clonus -- it is symptom of spasticity. If we live, as I suspect, in a spastic society it is because of clonic response. And by the expectations of these arguments, the clonus will get worse . (Stafford Beer. Managing modern complexity. In: Committee on Science and Astronautics. US House of Representatives. The Management of Information and Knowledge. Washington. US Government Printing Office, 1970 p. 45).

  • Many of our institutions seem to have inadvertently reached a critical size beyond which they are virtually uncontrollable in any coherent fashion. This tact of life was aptly described by Richard Bellman, in accepting the first Norbert Wiener prize for applied mathematics (1970) : I think it's beginning to be realized that our systems are falling apart. We don't know how to administer them. We don't know how to control them. And it isn't at all obvious that we can control a large system in such a way that it remains stable. It may very well be that there is a critical mass -- that when a system gets too large, it just gets automatically unstable We see these problems in our educational Systems, in our legal systems, in our bureaucratic systems, in our transportation systems, in our garbage collection systems, and so on... Similarly, as the complexity of societal operations increases, autocratically and hierarchically organized bureaucratic structures (whether business, education, government) then develop communication overloads near the top and discouragements to entrepreneurship and responsibility lower down... There is a serious mismatch between modern industrial- state culture and institutions, and the emerging new image of man. This mis-match produces such reactions as the growing challenge to the legitimacy of business institutions whose primary allegiance appears to be to their stockholders (typically other corporations) and managers, the growing disenchantment with the technocratic elite, the decreasing trust and confidence in governments, all revealed in recent survey data. The mismatch could result in serious social disruptions, economic decline, runaway inflation, and even institutional collapse . (Centre for the Study of Social Policy. Changing Images of Man. Stanford Research Institute. 1974. p. 230, 232. 240).

These quotations do not however make what kind or organizational forms would be most appropriate to this complex environment or. more important, how to facilitate the continuing emergence of more appropriate organizational forms in response to the changing configurations of the problems they seek to encompass. To fulfil its function, any such facilitative open-ended process needs to avoid pre-defining the nature of the forms to which it will give rise. Whilst at the same time providing a context from which such forms can emerge.

One of the sources quoted above recommends that :

In order to sustain our complex societal system, we may systematically reconstitute massive bureaucratic Structures into organizations with relatively autonomous subsystems (in effect, decentralization). This adaptive form of organization would seem better suited both to cope with complex tasks and to provide more satisfying work for the people involved . (Changing Images of Man. p. 232).

This is only one component of a possible solution however and ignores the unresolved question of the nature and dynamics of the linkages to be maintained between the decentralized units and how to enable the use of centralization when it is appropriate. The problem is clarified in the following :

The map of organizations or agencies that make up the society is. as it were, a sort of clear overlay against a page underneath it which represents the reality of the society. And the overlay is always out of phase in relation to what's underneath; at any given time there's always a mis-match between the organizational map and the reality of the problems that people think are worth solving... There's basically no social problem such that one can identify and control within a single system all the elements required in order to attack that problem. The result is that one is thrown back on the knitting together of elements in networks which are not controlled and where network functions and the network roles become critical . (Donald Schon. Beyond the Stable State; public and private learning in a changing society. London. Temple Smith. 1971).

The key questions therefore concern the nature of any alternative organizational forms which might be usefully explored and the problems of facilitating the emergence of organizational networks, their auto-galvanization, their transformation into other configurations, when appropriate, or even their dissolution. (On this latter point it is important to recall that many organizations are often simply memorials to antiquated perceptions of problems).

[Parts: Next | Last | All] [Links: To-K | From-K | From-Kx | Refs ]