Tag Archives: complexity sciences

On the complexity of stability and change

Long before theories of complexity became established in the natural sciences, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about social development as the complex evolution of ‘blindly operating’ processes. Greater interdependence in increasingly highly differentiated societies has led to longer and longer chains of people who are functionally interdependent with others. In other words, and without drawing on complex adaptive systems models, Elias noted how we are formed by, and at the same time we are forming the social processes of which we are part. It is not adequate to ascribe social change to the actions of highly charismatic individuals, on the one hand, or to mystical descriptions of emerging ‘wholes’ realising some kind of archetypal order, on the other. Instead, he argues, society evolves through the interweaving of intentions, a patterning which simply produces more patterning. Our plans and strategies form a tissue, an intermeshing web of actions and reactions, which are very difficult to interpret and to predict. There are trends in the patterning of social relations, and these tend in a particular direction. But the direction is not always forwards, and the consequences not always good. Development, or developments, are not always positive but are likely to both create and destroy. 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

On the idea of ‘mainstreaming’ insights from the complexity sciences

I experience a number of reactions when I talk to groups of managers about what I take to be some of the more radical insights from the complexity sciences, based on the work of the Complexity and Management Group, University of Hertfordshire. For some in the groups of managers I am working with, the analogies that I draw from the sciences of uncertainty pose a direct threat to the paradigm of predictability and control that they have accepted and are trying to practice. What I am saying can then cause severe irritation, sometimes anger, and there may be an attempt to trivialise what I am saying. This trivialisation may take the form of argument that if what I am claiming is true this would mean that anything goes in organisations, that management is not needed, or that we should just sit back and ‘let things emerge’. If the future is uncertain, then what’s the point of planning anything?

At the very least, what I draw from this is that there must be something in my exposition that they recognise, and which they find negating. Their anger or sense of having been provoked, is a way of re-establishing their particular relation to themselves and their place in the world which has been called into question. It also calls into question power relationships, which I will discuss further below.

Some others may have something akin to a conversion experience arguing that radical insights from the complexity sciences are the new truth, which must be ‘embraced’. Embracing the new truth will for some imply ‘mainstreaming’ it, which is a way of claiming that it should become the newly dominant way of talking about and framing the world. This then leads to proposals for creating tools or techniques for ‘introducing emergence’ into organisations, for modelling complexity, and for identifying and ‘seizing tipping points’. In these sorts of proposals, emergence is usually equated with something good, and ‘embracing complexity’ is a kind of shorthand for encouraging staff to be creative or innovative, where innovation again is code for ‘positive change’ or change that we think we want.

Enthusiasts for complexity can quickly fall back into the paradigm of predictability and control, where the body of ideas is understood as a way of behaving or understanding the world that is more likely to bring us what we think we know in advance will be good. Alternatively there may be disappointment that when they bring this new ‘truth’ to bear on work situations or with colleagues, somehow and inevitably the status quo reasserts itself. They may feel disappointment that this particular radically contingent way of understanding the world has encountered no traction and little recognition. In turn this may lead to questioning whether this perspective is in any way helpful or practical. Continue reading

Rethinking management – radical insights from the complexity sciences

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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

What is practical and useful?

I was working with a group of people the other day who were engaged in a long-term research project. We came together to share ideas, progress and developments from what each of us was doing in our area of research. One of the themes that began to emerge to shape people’s experience of their discussions together was the perceived difference between theory and practice, or theoreticians and practitioners.

Of course there can be no sharp distinction between people who consider themselves to be practitioners and those who would think of themselves as theoreticians. We all sit more or less comfortably with a different amalgam of theory and practice which is more or less explicitly acknowledged. Nonetheless, clear frustration arose between those who wanted to talk ‘practically’, sometimes about how ‘useful’ what they were doing was or was not, and those who took up these ‘practical’ expressions as a way of further theorising. To over-draw the dynamic, those who might predominantly understand themselves to be practitioners were frustrated that we could not be clearer about what we were trying to achieve and how this would be taken up in a practical way by stakeholders, and why theoreticians always seemed to answer a question with another question. While on the other hand, those who might predominantly think of themselves as theoreticians wondered out loud how it was possible to work without a theory of what one was doing, even if mostly implicit, and counselled against the drive in many contemporary organisations to ‘deliver’ things without stopping to question what things and why. Continue reading