Monday, May 15, 2006

Using Chaos Theory in Organizations

Finding a link between chaos, complexity and education was the central theme of my thesis research. The research has implications in any large or small organization.

Excerpted from a piece I worked on in 2004 called Bridging the Gap: A Complex-Adaptive Solution to the Great Political Divide

…Chaos theory tells us that everything in the universe has an emerging nature, from the evolution of organisms, to volcanic eruptions, to weather patterns, to the growth of civilizations. Secondly, the greatest creativity, evolvability and progress appear to take place at the “edge of chaos.” In chaos theory, random forces can converge to form a higher order. Research in the field has gone from the study of planets to the study of the weather to microorganisms, to the growth of companies to organizational and group behavior. What one learns from a study of complexity is that random forces converge to form a higher order behavior. Keep your eye on the larger picture as we delve into the details.

Steven Johnson, in a book called Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2001) wrote about studies of slime mold in the 1960’s by Mitch Resnick. The studies revealed that microorganisms displayed collective intelligence. Instead of one large organism moving across a floor in search of food, it was revealed that the “slime” was actually hundreds of single celled organisms coming together for a larger purpose.

In fact, evidence of self-organization is everywhere. Prigognine and Stengers in their much-cited compendium Order out of Chaos (1984) said that the biosphere as a whole and all its components existed in a state far from equilibrium. Based on this, they said life, as part of the natural order, was the “supreme expression” of a self-organizing process. Simplified, this means that the air, land and sea are all part of a complex system that tends towards equilibrium. It does so because it is adaptive. If it doesn’t – if it were rigid – it would cease to exist, and we would cease to exist.

Another example of a highly productive emergent process took place at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. As Nasser told the story in A Beautiful Mind (1998), people drifted into each other’s offices, or would just chat in the corridors. The grids and courtyards were set up “to maximize chance meetings.” The interchanges would lead to new research and colleagues exchanging challenging problems with one another. In this informal way, RAND memoranda would often start out simply as a handwritten paper being handed over to a math department secretary (Nasar).

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