Scott Adams 6/30/13

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The World We Live In

A Primer To A Systems Perspective On Actions and Consequences

We live in a Complex World. What does that mean - Complex? To put it somewhat wryly, complex is a complex word. It has many meanings in general usage. It can mean composed of many interconnected parts. It can mean having an involved or complicated arrangement of parts, or to be so intricate or complicated as to be difficult to comprehend or to deal with. It is used in different ways in a variety of sciences from chemistry and biochemistry to math and psychology to describe certain combinations of related entities or factors. The word itself is derived from complexus the Latin participle of the verb complectere, to embrace, incompass, include, intertwine, (from plectere, to weave, entwine), which in Late Latin came to include the notion of inclusion, or totality.*

Over the past twenty-five years, the rapidly emerging science of Complex Adaptive Systems (or Complexity) has led to greater recognition that a traditional reductionist scientific approach to understanding natural phenomena is not sufficient to understand our world, largely because much of our world is nonlinear. It is becoming increasingly clear that many sciences benefit greatly from interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate varied perspectives, and that any system in which conscious or instinctive choices get made and acted upon has an inherent uncertainty and is capable of wide variation and rapid change. This perspective is being applied to a wide-ranging set of disciplines: anthropology, artifical intelligence, biology, ecology, economics, genetics, immunology, information theory, neurology, sociology, theoretical physics, and more. 

The science of Complex Adaptive Systems is in its infancy. It is still in the process of defining many of its terms and indentifying some its conceptual components. But its influence on our ideas of how things work, and why, in important contexts is growing. And the implications on how we approach solutions to issues are becoming more visible. Many of its concepts, some still not clearly defined, are becoming more common in the discussion: attractors, criticality, emergence, fitness landscapes, fractals, initial conditions, self-organization, tipping point. 

Our purpose is to help frame the discussion on corporate governance, especially as it applies to a broad range of constituents and stakeholders in the activity of organizations, in the perspective of  a complex adaptive systems context. This is important because the theoretical and philosophical framework within which one operates deeply influences the assumptions upon which interpretation and decision making is based. If one assumes that the landscape you are operating in is constantly shifting, in response to a combination of individual and collective decisions and actions which are influencing each other, and that your landscape is simultaneously being influenced by events in sub-landscapes that are embedded within your own, and also by super-landscapes within which your own is embedded (see why this is called 'complex'?), then you approach maximizing success in a different way than if you assume that a particular action is taking place in a relatively static environment and will predictably have the desired impact. 

This primer is meant to be a succinct but incomplete introduction to the major concepts inherent in the science of Complex Adaptive Systems. Please refer to our Library, Resources, and Links to Organizations for additional research material.

*   source - Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, New York, 1987.

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