Complexity theory and strategic change: an empirically formed critique

Houchin, K. and MacLean, D. (2005) Complexity theory and strategic change: an empirically formed critique. British Journal of Management, 16(2), pp. 149-166. (doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00427.x)

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We present a four-year ethnographic study of a public-sector organization and use narrative to describe its development in terms of four complexity theory concepts: sensitivity to initial conditions, negative and positive feedback processes, disequilibrium and emergent order. Our study indicates that order emerges at the boundary between the organization's legitimate and shadow systems. We suggest that the underlying dynamic leading to the emergent order is the need to reduce anxiety. Our findings cause us to question the assertion that organizations are naturally complex adaptive systems producing novel forms of order. We propose an alternate view that in social systems, equilibrium-seeking behaviour is the norm; such systems can self-organize into hierarchy. We draw attention to some of the difficulties we found in applying complexity-theory concepts to a social system and conclude by advocating the development of complexity theory through the incorporation of insights from psychology and social theory.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:MacLean, Professor Donald
Authors: Houchin, K., and MacLean, D.
College/School:College of Social Sciences > Adam Smith Business School > Management
Journal Name:British Journal of Management
ISSN (Online):1467-8551
Published Online:09 February 2005

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