‘Complexity revolution’ unleashed

A book that turns traditional views of ethics and organisations on their head has been produced by the Centre for Studies in Complexity (CSC) of Stellenbosch University (SU).

In Complexity, Difference and Identity: An Ethical Perspective it is argued that organisations are not easily definable and unambiguous entities, but “complex living systems” bristling with dynamic interaction between unseen structures and unwritten rules. Business ethics should therefore not be a “wagon” hitched behind organisational goals, but rather the “locomotive” itself that pulls the organisation through its passage in time.

The book was launched at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) last night [Thursday, 4 November 2010]. It forms part of the “Issues in Business Ethics” series of the publisher, Springer, and the editors are Paul Cilliers and Rika Preiser, who are both attached to the CSC.

The central role allocated to ethics flows from the insights of complexity studies, a 20-year-old transdisciplinary science that is gaining ground in leaps and bounds. Its point of departure is that the world is complex, which has certain implications for all attempts to get a grip on reality by means of theoretical models. It involves reduction, which necessarily implies choices, and this gives a normative dimension to both the “hard” natural sciences as the “soft” social sciences.

From the point of view of complexity, the identity of an individual or institution is dynamic, not static. It is not a set of essential characteristics, but rather the product of constant interaction – both among the components and with the environment.

Paul Cilliers and Rika Preiser of SU’s Centre for Studies in Complexity at the launch of their new book, ‘In Complexity, Difference and Identity: An Ethical Perspective’. (Photo: Desmond Thompson)

In addition, complex systems are not homogenous, but asymmetrical. Precisely these differences provide depth and meaning to organisations.

“Diversity is not a problem to be solved,” writes Cilliers, “it is the precondition for the existence of any interesting behaviour.”

On face value, diversity is problematic for companies and other organisations, because it makes life “unpredictable and full of surprises”. However, differences should be welcomed, not feared, because according to “logic of complexity” diversity is a resource, not a threat.

These insights of the “complexity revolution” have far-reaching implications for how companies are run. Freedom and experimentation should be encouraged because this provides vitality and adaptability to organisations. But this does not mean there should be a total lack of order.

“Organisations are not chaotic things. They need structure in order to be able to behave interestingly,” Cilliers writes.

Freedom must therefore be constrained, but in an enabling way. The challenge for managers is to strike an appropriate balance between freedom and constraints.

At the launch, Professor Eugene Cloete, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, said the book makes a valuable contribution at a time in the history of humankind that new approaches to complex problems are desperately needed.

The CSC is interdisciplinary by nature. The joint project leaders, Professors Cilliers and Jannie Hofmeyr, come from the Philosophy Department of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Biochemistry Department of the Faculty of Natural Sciences respectively. The Centre was established in 2009 and forms part of SU’s HOPE Project, a university-wide programme through which the institution is applying its expertise to tackle serious problems in society.

The contributors to the book are esteemed South African and international researchers in a variety of fields, namely Cilliers, Preiser, Tanya de Villiers-Botha, Hans Müller, Minka Woerman, Amélie Guyot, Pierre Roux, Mark Swilling, John Collier, Leonhard Praeg, Wilmien Wicomb, Peter M Allen, David Byrne, Harry Kunneman, Mark Strathern and Liz Varga.


* Article written by: Desmond Thompson