In November, 2008, I was writing a book in Italian on pop complexity and I had to undergo a (painful) review of the scientific literature on “complexity theory” for management.

The most cited paper at the time (no idea what might have changed ever since) was “The Art of Continuous Change: Linking Complexity Theory and Time-Paced Evolution in Relentlessly Shifting Organizations”, by Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt, which had been published in 1997 by Administrative Science Quarterly (Vol. 42, No. 1).

It had already been cited over 1100 times by other authors as a sort of management-science complexity Bible.

In actuality, rather than «extending thinking about complexity theory», as bombastically announced in the abstract and implicitly in the title itself, all the paper accomplishes is to offer  a bunch of suggestive references to a sloppy popular literature. It also explicitly admits, in the very last paragraph, not to have empirically proved anything on the relationship between complexity and organization: «If these inductive insights survive empirical test, then they will extend our theories […]».

As typical with unsuccessful scientific accounts, the bibliography is very long and includes citations of works totally unrelated to the paper’s content as well as of others which the authors have obviously not understood, if at all read, such as a renowned popular work by physicist Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark the Jaguar, an absolute must as a citation for authors who dwell upon complexity but, lacking a scientific background, feel the need of putting together a credible bibliography. 

The 35-page Brown and Eisenhardt paper starts talking about complexity only on page 30 (beginning with «Perhaps closest to our research is work on complexity theory […] »). It does the job by merely quoting four books (no page numbers), and  concludes it with these words:

«Although speculative, our underlying argument is that change readily occurs because semistructures are sufficiently rigid so that change can be organized to happen, but not so rigid that it cannot occur. Too little structure makes it difficult to coordinate change. Too much structure makes it hard to move. Finally, sustaining this semistructured state is challenging because it is a dissipative equilibrium and so requires constant managerial vigilance to avoid slipping into pure chaos or pure structure. If future research validates these observations, the existence of semistructures could be an essential insight into frequently changing organizations».

The words «[it] is challenging because it is a dissipative equilibrium and so […]» are one annoying example of unnecessary abuse of pseudoscientific language to state something that could have been said in a clear and simple fashion.

What the authors intended to say is that if an organizational structure is too rigid it will tend to oppose any change, while if it is not structured at all it inclines to chaos; the intermediate organizational condition is more flexible, however its equilibrium is unstable since the state can become rigid or chaotic unless it is persistently controlled.

This may not sound like a tremendously innovative concept to you, yet if you go and read the paper you will concur that it could be stated as I just did. The analogical and imprecise resort to “dissipative structures” serves the purpose of leading the reader to believe that the authors are referring to a scientific context which they know well and which presumably attests the veracity of their statements, adding credibility to them.

However, the reader with a minimal scientific culture is annoyed by the paucity of the content and by the unfounded allusions (the expression unstable equilibrium would have been clearer and more correct, with no need to call into question the entropic mutation and environmental exchange issues implied by the term “dissipative”, to which the remainder of the paper makes no reference whatsoever).

In the Conclusion section the paper states that

«At a more fundamental level, the paper suggests a paradigm that combines field insights with complexity theory and time-paced evolution […]. Continuously changing organizations are likely to be complex adaptive systems […]»

The « paradigm that combines» is what I illustrated previously, i.e. 10 lines of rhetoric, and complex adaptive systems are an obligatory slogan that you must utter if you want to make believe that you know what you are talking about when daydreaming about complexity.

The truth is that this paper is pervaded by a fundamental confusion between complexity and dynamism (which is what it is really about) and that when the authors make reference to complexity (that is on pages 30 and 33 only) they reveal their incompetence in the field.

Enough said about the most successful (by 2008 at least) scientific paper on complexity in organizational management. And if this is the scientific state of the art, you can imagine what follows in the food chain down below…


PS: There are good papers too! One example, again taken from my 2008 review, “Complexity Theory and Organization Science”, by Philip Anderson (Organization Science, May-June 1999, Vol. 10, No. 3). An excellent overview of complexity concepts that may or may not turn out useful in management theory.

  1. tom abeles says:

    Insightful review, stating the obvious. If you were to go through the literature on management and scientific complexity, your critique would fit the majority of the articles. The extensive bibliography in many of these articles are to raise the visibility and hence the value towards promotion and tenure because of weightings in indices such as ISI’s publications. When early science research and the first publications in the mid 17th century appeared, it is clear that most of the researchers eschewed academics. Today the proliferation of academic publications are used more for promotion and tenure than to move critical knowledge into the public eye. In fact one of the major obstacles with the early e-journals was the validity of their existence as acceptable in the promotion/tenure process. In fact taking compleity “science” as a central idea, it would be interesting to look at the entire pub/perish venue as a legitimation of the p/t process as opposed to the changing paths for getting research critical information into the research community. OTH would entertain such a proposal

  2. paolomagrassi says:

    Publication as a sterile career mean, often deprived of any content, plagues the whole of science. (90%+ of “scientific” papers add page count to their authors, but nothing to science. You ought to look for the other 10%).

    However in domains such as physics or mathematics or engineering or material sciences or molecular biology you will not find a junk article cited a thousand times.

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