DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3987-2.ch001


Complexity theory provides a new perspective to address the transformative and evolutionary nature of organizational phenomena, as well as system dynamics. After reviewing the most influential studies of complexity science, this chapter reflects on the application of the conceptual framework of complexity theory on business management by providing the “3Vs model” for interpreting both the structuralist and post-structuralist view of complexity in organizations.
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Since the open-systems view of organizations was developed, complexity has been a term of reference and a conceptual framework for exploring social and organizational phenomena from a post-structuralist point of view (Anderson, 1999). The science of complexity has helped to generate a great deal of research in organization studies and has significantly advanced knowledge in the field by developing ontological and epistemological issues that have produced important implications for organizational theory (Tsoukas & Hatch, 2001; Allen, Maguire & McKelvey, 2011). In shifting the focus from the reductionist to the post-structuralist perspective, two different schools of thought on organizational complexity can be broadly distinguished. The first one assumes that the world is objectified and conceives the organization as an already accomplished entity, with pre-given properties that can be described, analysed and quantified by adopting the logico-scientific mode of thought (Bruner, 1986). Such a perspective contributes in explaining and predicting the organizational phenomena under investigation by the construction of abstract models that provide explanations in terms of relationships among dependent and independent variables (variance model). Consequently, the intrinsic properties of phenomena may be discerned and it may be possible to state common principles with predictive validity as a guide for interpretation (Hayles, 1990). The second one employs a process perspective and tends to conceive organizational phenomena as an emergent outcome of the process of sense-making, through which people share meanings and interpretations of reality. The origin of this relational ontology is the recursive relationship among organizational phenomena, that are thought to consist of wholes emerging out of the continuous interactivity of constituent parts, embedded in broader wholes. Accordingly, organization is immanently generated from within and organizational members are both observers and participants in the unfolding of the organizational phenomena. Individual and organizational action is performative, because it generates productive and counterproductive effects that create and recreate the practices of the organization while the practices enable action. The practices in which organizational members are engaged with their knowledge, experience, values, symbols and languages create the space for new opportunities, making organizational change always possible (Feldman, 2003). In sum, the post-structuralist approach to organizational knowledge views the object of study as inherently complex and, accordingly, seeks to embrace complexity rather than reduce it. Embracing complexity implies awareness of the need to expand the focus from the object under investigation (the system) to include the individuals that describe the object as complex. The integration of the two perspectives leads towards the assumption that the features of a complex phenomenon are both objectified descriptions and interpretations that observers assign to specific phenomena. This assumption has important implications for how we position our approach to organizational complexity.

Following this reasoning, the starting point for the construction of a conceptual framework for complexity in organizational studies can be found in four fundamental propositions:

  • 1.

    Complexity can be recognised as a multidisciplinary way of thinking about organizational phenomena, since it draws assumptions and methodological implications from a variety of disciplines (natural science, biology, social systems);

  • 2.

    Complexity is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide array of meanings related to an assumed objective world and entirely compatible with an interpretative approach, but distinct from complication;

  • 3.

    Complexity is a constitutive trait of a system and, at the same time, a distinct characteristic of the observer. The science of complexity sets an initial condition: the dynamic interrelationship between the observer and the system under investigation;

  • 4.

    Complexity is a relative and relational concept, because it depends on the perceptual filters of the observer and is generated in practice when multiple agents interact in open-ended ways.

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