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Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) have shown us how agents following just few simple rules will create complex patterns that can be highly unpredictable. This means that those patterns can’t be predicted by studying the individual agents.

Recently I have been analyzing the everyday social interaction, which creates social complexity. I have shown that people follow dozens of different “rules” that are emerging from the interaction itself. I wrote about the individual thinking processes, interpersonal processes, group processes and intergroup processes. I have studied the emergence of social identity. All of these processes create enormous complexity even in very ordinary daily interactions.

In this post I will go back to the individual processes and explain why the systems thinking approach can’t work in organizations.

Individual’s perspective on the world

As we saw in my previous posts, people categorize the world, including other people. We have psychic structures that enable us to organize information and anticipate what will happen. These schema are formed in the interactions with our environment. We have persona-schema, self-schema, role schema and event-schema (scripts) that help us to know what will happen and in which order. These schema can even form self-fulfilling prophecies.

Rosenthal & Jacobson made a famous study where school teachers were made to believe that some of their children were exceptionally promising students. In reality they were selected randomly. It appeared that the teachers treated these students differently: They created emotionally more warm relationships towards them, they gave more challenging learning material for them, they gave more (and more positive) feedback for them and they give them more chances to answer questions. In the end of the semester these children appeared to get better grades and even better scores on IQ tests.

Our attitudes and attributions also play a big part on how we function. Ajzen formed a model of planned behavior where the attitude, subjective norms and perceived control affects our intentions to behave in certain way. This intention can then lead to behavior. Perceived control is very much in connections with our attributions. Internal attribution means that we tend to think that things happen because of us, outer attribution means that we tend to think things happen because of things outside of us. The first one is also called fundamental attribution error, as in western individualistic societies people often tend to think we are individually responsible of what happens. In reality the environment often plays a big part. Self-serving bias means that we tend to think success is because of ourselves and failure because of our environment.

How these schema and attributions are formed comes from our social interactions. A big part of this is how our conception of knowledge and moral is developing.

Development of knowledge and moral

Willem Perry divided conception of knowledge to three types:

  1. Knowledge that has been taught is absolutely true
  2. People have different perceptions of reality and things. Nobody’s perception is better than others
  3. Theories are just hypothetical structures that are always reformed.

Kitchener and King also formed a similar theory of how conception of knowledge develops. (It is actually resembling with my scarp-model which seeks to explain how different styles of thinking about organizations are forming in spiral process.) They thought it is a process with different phases that build on previous phases:

  1. What is perceived is true. (steep positivism)
  2. Some beliefs are true, some are not (sober-minded positivism)
  3. In time, authorities will find out the truth (sober-minded positivism)
  4. Knowledge is unstable because of situational reasons (relativism)
  5. Knowledge can be understood only in context (steep relativism)
  6. Different approaches can be compared by using commonly agreed criteria (sober-minded relativism, realism)
  7. Capability of taking perspective on one’s own perspective (sober-minded relativism, realism, reflexivity)

So, it is quite easy to see how the development of knowledge is first quite simple, black and white, and then develops to more relative approaches. These conceptions of knowledge are also related to how we build our schema and attributions. We can either have a very one-dimensional world-view, where things happen always in certain fixed ways, or then we see it to be more complex.

We can also see a similar pattern when we look at how moral develops. The most famous theory is that of Kohlberg’s. There are some critiques towards his theory, especially Gilligan’s who thought it didn’t include more soft elements of moral such as care-taking. But as a high-level theory it is reasonably good. Kohlberg thought there are three stages of moral development: Preconventional, conventional and postconventional. These are then divided to five phases:

  1. Heteronomic stage (obedience and punishment avoidance)
  2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)
  3. Good human relations and conformity (Acting according the norms, loyalty)
  4. Social-order maintaining orientation and conscience (What if everybody would be acting like this?)
  5. Social contract orientation. Universal ethical principles.

It is quite easy to see how these stages map to the development of conception of knowledge. But how does all of this relate to organizational behavior and systems thinking?

Why Organizations Can’t Be Systems

If human beings would be seen as agents in complex adaptive systems – or in any other types of systems – it is quite easy to see that they have quite many rules that they act on. In previous posts I have looked at the more social aspects of self, but in this post I concentrated on quite individual, psychological processes. One might argue that actually these processes are very social in nature, and that is true. Still, in order to be able to place “individual agents” in our “organizational system” let’s agree we can thought of these phenomena in individual context.

Now, a systems thinker would concentrate on building boundaries and goals for the agents, in order steer the system towards some beneficial goals. We might agree it would be impossible for him to affect the schema and attributions in very radical ways. These are learned in long time processes and they would be quite stable. The only possibility is that people’s conceptions of knowledge and moral are developing towards the higher stages.

So in first stage the people would do what the authorities say, just to avoid punishment. Systems thinker couldn’t use his visions as they are irrelevant. He could only concentrate on building boundaries and these would actually soon become just individual steering mechanisms. The goals of the organizations wouldn’t be achieved with these people.

In second stage people would start to pay attention to human relations. They would believe the authorities can have some understanding but probably not better than any other authorities. People would try to take as much advantage as possible for themselves in the organization. They would follow some goal and respect some boundaries but very soon turn to other directions when it would be suitable for themselves. The higher-level goals of the organization would be quite irrelevant for them.

In the third stage the people would understand it is possible to find perspectives that are better than others, but they would still understand that these perspectives are always evolving and developing – they are not fixed. They would think about what is best for the whole society, but they would also know that the company that they are working for is just one of the companies in the whole society. If their company is successful, some other must be unsuccessful. These people would do their work well, but put the well-fare of the whole (their families, society, world peace, etc) to the first priority. Furthermore, they would have their own opinions on how to do things and how to set goals. Again, the systems thinker could not make these people to be part of his well-crafted system. His visions would lack the significance for these people, and the boundaries would be seen as relative options to follow in some specific situations but not always.


People are very complex beings. This is because they are interdependent and socially created. The interactions shape people, and people shape the interactions. This is continuous process even though it is possible to perceive some common patterns that are somewhat predictable.

To think about people as agents that can be steered by systemic mechanisms is to completely ignore their feelings, complex relationships, psychological processes and morality. All of these things play a significant part in interpersonal, intergroup and society level interactions. It would be a huge overestimation to think that somebody could control this process. It would also neglect the fact that this someone is inevitably subject to these human processes himself.