Organizations and Complexity

I’ve discussed this table before, but I’d like to put it all the links together to highlight what we need to do with our organizations and structures to deal with complexity.

From the evolving social organization we developed this table to show the differences between three archetypal organizations.

Simplicity Complication Complexity
Organizational Theory Knowledge-Based View Learning Organization Value Networks
Attractors Stakeholders (vision) Shareholders (wealth) Clients (service)
Growth Model Internal Mergers & Acquisitions Ecosystem
Knowledge Acquisition Formal Training Performance Support Social
Knowledge Capitalization Best Practices Good Practices Emergent Practices

How we can support emergent practices in the increasingly complex enterprise:


Patti Anklam, in discussing value networks and complexity  states:

Understanding of complexity provides a practical guide to managing context.

You can’t manage a network, you can only manage its context.

Slight alterations in the structure can create significant change over time;

But you must first look to understand the context


Value network analysis is a process which is more art than science. Humans work in complex environments and we are by our very nature unpredictable. The result of a VNA allows you to ask better questions but it doesn’t give specific answers (it’s not a tool for bean counters). I think that VNA is an excellent change management tool. I can see the use of VNA and the resulting concept maps enabling better communication within organizations, with clients, with funders and throughout communities


I have met new friends, business partners and clients with social media, and like the authors of Trust Agents, I would say that a “no sales” approach works best in the long run. The chapter called the Human Artist covers online etiquette in detail and should be read by any self-described social media guru. Also, three of the book’s chapters reflect The Law of the Few – how small groups of people enable social change or the transmission of new ideas.

Connectors: They talk about the idea of being Agent Zero, or the person who connects groups where no previous connection exists.

Mavens: They also discuss creating value, or doing things that people need, one small bit at a time. In Make Your Own Game, the premise is to find a niche and become an expert in it.

Salespeople: In Build an Army, the authors show the promise and pitfalls of crowd-sourcing and social networks for business.


Most intelligent people know that there is no such thing as a job for life. Corporations have shown that loyalty to the enterprise does not work both ways. Organizations should look at how they can structure to take advantage of these workplace changes. The first part is to stop thinking like a hierarchy, with titles and reporting relationships, and start framing the enterprise in terms of networks. Mapping value networks is a start, as is talking about social networks and supporting them through the use of social media. If you look at work differently and talk about it differently, then new conversations and attitudes will result.

Here are some ideas, for starters:

Abolish the organization chart and replace it with a network diagram.

Move away from counting hours, to a results oriented work environment

Encourage outside work that doesn’t directly interfere with paid work, as it will strengthen the network

Provide options for workers to come and go and give them ways to stay connected when they’re not employed. Build an ecosystem or join one (e.g. an open source community).


In a framework for the social enterprise we noted how knowledge workers get things done by conversing with peers, customers and partners, as they solve the problems of the day. Learning from these social interactions is a key to business innovation. To participate in their markets, organizations, customers and suppliers need to understand each other and this too, is social. Social learning is how knowledge is created, internalized and shared. It is how knowledge work gets done.


The cynefin model shows that emergent practices are needed in order to manage in complex environments and novel practices are necessary for chaotic ones. Most of what we consider standard work today is being outsourced and automated. We are facing more complexity and chaos in our work because of our interconnectedness.

Many of the problems we face today are COMPLEX, and methods to solve simple and complicated problems will not work with complex ones. One of the ways we addressed simple & complicated problems was through training. Training works well when you have clear and measurable objectives. However, there are no clear objectives with complex problems. Learning as we probe the problem, we gain insight and our practices are emergent (emerging from our interaction with the changing environment and the problem). Training looks backwards, at what worked in the past (good & best practices), and creates a controlled environment to develop knowledge and skills.

To deal with increasing complexity, organizations need to support emergent work practices, in addition to their training efforts. They must support collaboration, communication, synthesis, pattern recognition and creative tension, all within a trusting environment in order to be effective.

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