Category Archives: research

Complexity and Management Conference 2016 – 10-12th June: Hertfordshire Business School

Taking complexity seriously – what difference does it make in organisations? 

Venue: Roffey Park Management Centre

A familiar question from many managers who respond to our presentations on the relevance of insights from the complexity sciences to people organizing, is to ask what their practical application could possibly be. If they consider step-wise prescriptions for success to be ‘concrete’, or are looking for tools and techniques, then the injunction to take every day experience seriously may sound quite ephemeral. If the focus in strategic management is on the ‘big picture’ and wholesale change, then the recommendation to pay attention to how the ‘whole’ emerges in everyday interaction sounds very surprising. However, with some managers what we describe strikes a chord.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of 60-plus graduates of the Doctor of Management programme have found the experience of paying attention to their practice with others transformative, both for themselves and for the organisations in which they work. Every year participants in annual Complexity and Management conference, who come from a variety of organisational backgrounds, bring many examples of how taking the everyday complexity of organizational life seriously makes a difference to expanding possibilities for action. This experience is matched by an increased focus in the scholarly literature on everyday processes of organizing.

In this year’s conference we will discuss the complexity of practice and the difference it makes to pay attention to what we are all doing together to get things done.

Our key note speakers are:

Session 1

Henry Larsen, Professor of Participatory Innovation at Southern Denmark University, graduate of the DMan programme, ex- member of the Da Capo theatre company. His research interest is in exploring spontaneity and improvisation in the everyday processes of relating.

Professor Karen Norman of Kingston University and doctoral supervisor on the Doctor of Management programme. Karen was formally Chief Nursing Officer in Gibraltar and Director of Nursing for Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH). She is also a graduate of the DMan programme and continues to take an interest in drawing on insights from complexity theory to inform clinical practice aimed at improving the experience of health care for patients.

Mark Renshaw Deputy Chief of Patient Safety at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Mark facilitated a range of quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and co – led the BSUH falls reduction programme – an initiative that started after a patient died after falling in hospital. This work has reduced the incidence of patient falls by 48%  over five years.  His role has allowed him to explore his interest in complex systems and how behavioural change in clinical practice emerges out of group dynamics and professional ‘habitus.’

Henry, Karen and Mark will talk about their collaborative research project on reducing patient falls.

Session 2

Pernille Thorup – Pernille is on the senior management team of COK (Center for Offentlig Kompetenceudvikling), which is the strategic partner in public sector development for KL (Kommunernes Landsforening), the organization of Danish Municipalities. She has recently undertaken a three year strategy process within the company, drawing on insights from the complexity sciences, which has now involved COK’s clients. The changes in her own organisation and the discussion this has provoked in Denmark more widely, will form the subject of her talk.

A booking page on the university website will be uploaded in the New Year.

Payment by results: research methods and disciplinary power

I was sitting in a meeting with a social development organisation listening to the kinds of requirements that have been placed upon it by a governmental body in order to trigger the full funding for a grant that they had succesfully bid for. 10% of the grant is ‘performance related’. In other words, and on a sliding scale of reward for performance, the social development organisation has to prove that it has helped educate a certain number of girls in a developing country to a predicted level of attainment, and that these girls will have stayed in school for the three year duration of the project and not dropped out. Additionally money is released against the achievement of pre-reflected project milestones. ‘Results’ are validated by ‘rigorous research methods’ which turned out to mean quasi-experimental methods. In other words, the rubric insists that the project sites be compared with communities where there has been no such intervention, and which are ‘similar in every way’. The organisation will only be fully rewarded if it achieves exactly what it said it would, and precisely to the timetable it set out in the proposal.

This particular social development organisation I am visiting is one amongst a dozen or so others which have received similar or much bigger grants, some of which amount to the low tens of millions. All of them have proposed highly complex interventions in very different developing countries involving the girls themselves, their families, teachers, head teachers, community groups, religious and community leaders, sometimes even boys. As with most social development these days the intervention is highly ambitious and leaves the impression that the organisation, working through a local social development organisation in the country concerned, will be intervening in particular communities at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in a variety of different and incalculable ways. This combination of interventions may be necessary, but the extent and range of them makes the question of causality extremely problematic, experimental methods or no.

The other thing that struck me is that the dozen or so social development organisations receiving this money all have to use the same project management tools and frameworks so that the government department can aggregate progress and results across all countries and all projects. Quantification and standardisation is necessary, then, in order to render the projects commensurable, and in order to make a claim that the government has made a quantifiable contribution to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which they can ‘prove’. The kind of assertion that the government would like to make is that it has improved X tens of thousands of girls’ education to Y degree through its funding of a variety of organisations. These results, the claim will continue, will have been rigorously demonstrated through scientific methods and will therefore be uncontestable. Continue reading

Complex, but not quite complex enough

During the last 10-15 years there have been repeated appeals to the complexity sciences to inform evaluative practice in books and journals about evaluation. This partly reflects the increased ambition of many social development and health programmes which are configured with multiple objectives and outcomes and the perceived inadequacy of linear approaches to evaluating them. It could also be understood as a further evolution of the methods vs theories debate  which has led to theory-based approaches becoming much more widely taken up in the evaluative practice. It is now very hard to avoid using a ‘theory of change’ both in programme development and evaluation. What kind of theory informs a theory of change, however?

Although the discussion over paradigms has clearly not gone away, the turn to the complexity sciences as a resource domain for evaluative insight could be seen as another development in producing richer theories better to understand, and make judgements about, complex reality. However, some evaluators are understandably nervous about the challenge of what they perceive as being the more radical implications of assuming that non-linear interactions in social life may be the norm, rather than the exception. In a variety of ways they try to subsume them under traditional evaluative orthodoxies, which is just as one might expect any thought collective to respond. Continue reading

Complexity and sustainability

Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics, is due to give one of the Oxford Amnesty lectures this year.  You can watch her Nobel lecture accepting her award here. Ostrom’s work over five decades has been to conduct a huge variety of studies of what she terms ‘common pool’ joint  economic undertakings, such as forests, farmland held in common, irrigation systems and even the provision of services in cities in the United States to better understand human behaviour. She has been concerned to develop better understanding of how common pool economic ‘systems’ might be managed more sustainably. Her conclusions are that complex economic interaction can more helpfully understood with painstaking empirical study, but that there are no simplistic answers. To echo the title of her Nobel lecture, complex economic interactions demand what she terms ‘polycentric governance’, which is beyond both state and markets.

For example, her response to earlier studies criticising the messiness of provision of government and other agencies in a city area led her to conclude that what mattered was not the consolidation of agencies to rationalise away the mess, but  overall performance. There is no one best way of organising ‘messy’ provision, which might be providing a good level of services for local citizens. For example, her in-depth studies of police departments in six metropolitan areas did not find a single instance where a large centralized police department outperformed smaller departments serving similar neighbourhoods in regard to multiple indicators. A mixed population of departments, both large and small, was what worked best, she concluded.

Her studies of common pool resources led her to develop a range of inter-disciplinary methods better to understand her objects of study, including agent-based models, which we have discussed in earlier posts. Continue reading

Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Continue reading

Complexity and evaluation

Evaluation is a domain of activity which the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as a field of specialised production. In other words, it is a highly organised game, extended over time, with its own developing vocabulary, in which there are a wide variety of players who have a heavy investment in continuing to play. Because the game is complex, and played seriously, and those who want to play it must accumulate symbolic and linguistic capital, it is very hard to keep up. To influence the game there is a requirement to be recognised as a legitimate player, as one worth engaging with, and this requires speaking with the concepts and vocabulary that are valued in the game. To call the game into question, then requires the paradoxical requirement of using the vocabulary of the game to criticise the game, and this is no easy thing.

However, a number of evaluation practitioners have begun to question the linearity of development interventions, and therefore the evaluation methods which are commonly used to make judgements about their quality. Since most social development interventions are construed using propositional logic of an if-then kind, there can be no surprise that most evaluation methods follow a similar path. As a recent call for papers for an international conference articulated this, evaluation is understood as being about developing scientifically valid methods to demonstrate that a particular intervention has led causally to a particular outcome. In calling into question the reductive linear logic of the framing of both social development and evaluation, a number of scholars have found themselves turning to the complexity sciences as a resource domain of a different kind of thinking but have done so with a varied radicalism in calling the evaluation game into question. Continue reading

Is there any evidence for evidence-based management?

In previous posts we have considered the appeal by a variety of scholars to be more evidence-based in management. The idea is that management practice should be grounded in a stable body of generalisable knowledge, which should then ensure that managers in organisations can take up ‘best practice’ and aspire to better outcomes for the staff and organisations they manage.

This is a noble aspiration, particularly if it works against the dominance of fads and fashion in management, where managers may adopt a particular practice mainly because managers in other organisations in their particular field are doing so. But what is the evidence for thinking that there is such a stable body of knowledge? Continue reading