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The term complexity has no standard definition, in layperson terms or scientific terms. Many aspects of complexity can be explored. We start with the one of greatest significance to strategy and management.

The most significant aspect of complexity --

The most significant aspect of complexity is the insight it offers into organizations that is radically different from other scientific perspectives and the dominant management discourse. The importance of complexity as a concept, and as a science, comes from the insights produced regarding organization, self-organization, and organization evolution. These insights from natural science offer insights into social science, thus organization theory and management, offering radically different explanations for and perspectives on strategy development and the management of organizations..

Ralph Stacey's view of complexity insights (Stacey, 2007, pp 3) --
The term 'complexity' refers to important insights coming from the natural complexity sciences to do with --

  • the intrinsic uncertainty and unpredictability of a great many natural phenomena,
  • the importance of diversity in the evolution of novel forms, and
  • the self-organizing emergent nature of that evolution

The insight from complexity --
The insight is that novel global, population-wide forms emerge unpredictably in self-organizing, that is local, interaction, in the absence of blueprint, programme or plan for global, population-wide form.

Challenge to the dominant management discourse (Stacey, 2007, pp 4) --
Complexity insights are a major challenge to the dominant management discourse, which is based on a systems, vs. complexity, view of organizations. The dominant discourse is based on assumptions to do with --

  • predictability and
  • planning the whole organization

Other aspects of complexity --

Complexity refers to more than the state of being complicated. In the realm of strategy, complexity is what business organizations have to deal with -- a complex world, complexity economics, organizations as complex social systems, complex decisions, and so forth.

Systems complexity -- In regards to systems, there are a couple of ways of describing complexity.

The first way relates to the number of elements in the system and the relationships between those elements, which when combined explain the overall system complexity -- detail complexity and dynamic complexity.

  • Complexity of detail refers to the number of elements or things making up a system.
  • Dynamic complexity refers to the number and nature of the relationships between the elements.

""The first lesson of systems thinking is to know whether you are dealing with detail or dynamic complexity -- a jigsaw puzzle or a chess game"" (O'Connor 1997).

The second way to describe complexity is apparent and inherent complexity --

  • Systems with apparent complexity are those that are complicated in appearance but have relatively simple underlying patterns which create that appearance. Understanding these systems is within reach of systems thinking.
  • Systems with multiple, simultaneous feedback loops, described as chaotic systems, have inherent complexity. Attempting to understand these systems is in the realm of complexity science.

Relationship to information technology --
Dynamic complexity has increased rapidly in no small part due to the information technology. Information technology has virtually eliminated time and space as limitations to interactions of the elements of systems, thus enabling an exponential increase in complexity of social systems. Thus while information technology enables the understanding, development, and management of increasingly complex systems, it also drives the increasing complexity of social systems, including organizations and business strategies.