Home » Archive » Complexity challenge

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

I’ve written before on the cross-over from science into business and cited with gushing enthusiasm the insights of Edward O. Wilson. I’ve just finished reading Veran Allee’s book the Future of Knowledge. Her book is a pretty good overview of where we’re at and the challenges we face when managing this new organic world of information.

Because Verna’s book is an overview, she relies on many other thinkers to do the heavy lifting. One of those people is John Hagel who’s called for (what he calls) the molecular organisation. The problem with molecular organisations is that we don’t know how to work one – or even build them intentionally. Verna says we’re in trouble because we while we think in terms of processes (instead of functional units), we need to think about webs and networks which don’t work well with our current resource management systems. And while we’re busy trying to stretch our processes to meet the challenge – the challenge keeps getting bigger.

The problem is bigger than we think. Or perhaps more Mutant X than we imagine. Knowledge theorist Max Boisot says we don’t have the software systems or even the language to handle the task. But we do have the brains – or some of us do. And he posits that the information-based economy is driving a species-level evolution. There’s a few that can handle the shift. And many that can’t.

While some of us are busy mutating, Verna points out that the rest of us face a most complex and difficult challenge: the temptation to simply incorporate networks into existing frameworks and tools – and then convince ourselves we are introducing something dramatically new and different. We use new language but not new concepts. And we get this strange mix of new words and old concepts. But bad analogies and inappropriate tools threaten to mislead or subvert the very principles that are being introduced by the mutating few.

Verna points out that we need a shift in consciousness; we are experiencing a meta-level dilemma. On one hand, old logic is insufficient to reason our way through current challenges. On the other hand, our only tools are the linear business principles, processes and systems we currently work with. So, for the time being, we must be very clear on the worldview we are operating from. And we need to approach learning with a much higher level of self-reflection than has ever before been required.

The problem then is that we are faced with complex issues and we don’t have the mutants we need to get the job done. In the meantime, we can’t solve complex issues with the same tools we use to solve complicated ones. David Snowden (Institute of Knowledge Management) makes a clear distinction between complicated and complex. He says an airplane is complicated, but all its parts may be known, understood, engineered, and managed. The truly complex includes too many variables to ever be known, fully understood, or managed. Humans are complex. Organisations are complex. Life is complex.

As a result, Complexity Theory concepts are increasingly used, both metaphorically and literally, in a business context. Complexity theory is an umbrella of interdisciplinary exploration of a set of theories from physics, biology, chemistry, sociology, cybernetics, nonlinear dynamics, nonlinear mathematics, and chaos theory. Also included are psychology, anthropology, and organisational behaviour.

Once Complexity Theory is embraced we can move from the mirage of a predictable world to the reality of a world of probabilities. We leave behind the deterministic economy of physical goods, production lines and dive into a knowledge-based economy. The human skills of pattern recognition, heuristic approaches, and experimental inquiry are suddenly valued. We get to explore. We get to taste, touch and experience. Our talents for metaphor, poetry, and music are suddenly business propositions instead of past-times.

Now can you see why Maslow’s challenge was so important to recognize? Is it suddenly clear why education is such a critical enterprise? Does it jump out at you that innovation, insight, and vision share a measure of magnitude that renders skills like time management and memo writing laughably overrated and utterly irrelevant?

We aren’t facing a world air-travel vs. space travel or dvd’s vs. hard-disk storage. There’s money in those things but the solutions are out there. We are facing melting ice caps, extinguished biodiversity, mounting municipal waste, decaying social systems and an alarming absence of movement toward anything that promises solutions. I’m not all in on the species-level shift stuff but geez, it’s a million miles closer to where we need to be than most of us are. We aren’t overhauling education. We aren’t tearing down hierarchies. We aren’t abandoning home pages. Why?


I’ll bet you have a better sense of *why* than most people ;-) and for my $ .02 … never underestimate greed and the lust for power … we haven’t yet gotten to the stage where enough people, a critical mass globally, acn’t stand the dysfunction any longer. And while i write that my words seem woefully naive to me, becasue a significant proportion of he world’s population live at or near the subsistence level, whathave they got to lose. But there’s a huge and structural imbalance of power and wealth, and unfortunately many of us North Americans are still trapped in Wealth Bondage, achievement mindsets, money and consumption, go go go, be a success, and it all feeds into maintaining the slowly disintegrating, decomposing status quo. I think that in the aggregate *we* are more unconscious than we are conscious, even if blinding moments of clarity burn through from time to time.

Hey Jon, I’m glad you found this post.

Reading your other comment on my response the Hugh, I was going to direct you here.

I sort of understand the lust/greed part. But I think the answer pivots more on the MclUhan/Churchill aphorism you mention in your other comments. I also agree with Verna.

Our nature is to invest in innovation rarely. Once we take the plunge we squeeze all the juice out of that investment even if the marginal returns are rapidly diminishing and offset by new emerging innovations. We’re let stretching and tugging these other tools in impossible directions.

I think this is an aspect of human nature not well accounted for in economics. And until this is well understood, we don’t have a hope in hell of getting the power hungry folks to budge.

Dave Pollard wrote me the other day and said, “innovation just isn’t in vogue these days.”. He’s probably right but what are we thinking? Is breathing in vogue?

til this is well understood, we don’t have a hope in hell of getting the power hungry folks to budge.

Even should economics or GAAP begin to address this *aspect of human nature*, I don’t think the power squadron will decide “hey, we should budge”. Only someone *enlightened* enough to realize that we live in whole systems and that continuing to milk and squeeze only eventually leads to real and cataclysmic backlash (ref. the French revolution, ot the boxer rebellion) might consider that .. and such a person, tapping into the profound aspects of *human nature* and taking it into some form of real and widespread action … will some day be recognized as a great leader for humanity.

Have you met Dave yet ? .. great guy, good friend of mine.

I’ve never thought precise understanding would enlighten the power squadron. But it might enlighten economists who could enlighten students and that should enlighten their decisions, which would budge the power squadron.

Until human nature is the subject of earnest economic analysis we are forever subject to chance that the leaders we have understand the people they lead.

Haven’t met Dave yet, though we’ve promised each other to hook up next time I’m in Toronto.

I liked the distinction between complex and complicated. I guess,
in a way, you can find “mechanical” solutions to complicated problems, but
complex problems might never be solved completely mechanically, or at least it
could take a long time before solutions for complex problems can be automated…

In some ways, some of the “complex” problems of today could be a result of
“tools” that we are using to solve complicated problems. For instance, the
use of Internet to solve a complicated problem such as information distribution,
could have resulted in a “complex” problem of people needing to meet each other
face-face oftener…

CO, Biodiesel from Algae

Castor … it’s hard to tell if this is a real comment or spam. The comments seems bang on. The links to your castor oil site and biodiesel site seem a bit out of context. Is this for real?

Hi Jeremy,

Well, it is for real, no it is not spam, at least I did not it intend it to be…

I guess the issue could be my penchance to get a bit of free advertising for my
site wherever possible, if you feel that is inappropriate, please do the needful


Oh no, go ahead.

Caught my eye: I’m an investment manager for a small firm. Bioproducts is my portfolio.

Back to the topic – I totally agree: automation of solutions to complex problems is unlikely and many of them are likely the consequence of trying use generic tools.

But I am interested in automating searching of giant piles of data, much like Google has done. Google plus tagging seems to hold some potential in at least automating the piling process.

So … what are you up to with biodiesel?

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for your response…you could justifiably state that I’m in a confused state right now, trying my hand at quite a few things in life, biodiesel being one of the rare things that I’m actually putting a focus on…by day, I help Indian companies in their export operations ( http://www.esource.in ), by the rest-of-the-day I dabble in a few things, with bio-energy being a big-time interest area ( see http://www.bdpedia.com – this is a site I run, now that’s one more bit of free advertising for me)…

it is interesting to know you are an in the intersection of investments & bio-energy…In my opinion you are in an exciting territory (disclosure statement: my friends often accuse me of hyperbole :-) )…I personally feel that some areas of bio-energy have tremendous potential to create wealth for poorer nations…for instance, using crops for producing biodiesel & biogasoline has the potential to make farmers mini-oil-barons…just consider how good it would be for poor countries like India which had over 5,000 farmers committing suicides owing to poverty last year alone!

Guess I’m talking too much on a public forum focussing on a different issue all together…my contact details can be found on my corporate page…would like to keep in touch, cheerio