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If we think of organisations as complex, adaptive living systems there are important insights from an understanding of systems, complex systems, complex adaptive systems and living systems.


A system is a 'perceived whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts (elements)' The behaviour of the system is a property of the whole rather than a sum of the behaviours of its component parts.

The future behaviour of a simple system can be predicted from a knowledge of the nature of the parts and the connections.

A 'systems approach' will always emphasise these two key concepts - the relationships (connections) between the parts ; and behaviours that are properties of the system as a whole.

Complex systems

Complex here goes beyond something merely 'complicated'. It includes the sense of a whole (as in 'building complex'). The behaviour of complex systems cannot be precisely predicted from an understanding of the parts and the connections, though it takes on patterns that are recognisably constant. Most complex systems are 'dissipative' - they require a flow of energy through them to keep them from settling into equilibrium and losing their complexity. An example is the vortex formed when you take the plug out of a bath - it's exact shape is unpredictable, but it's overall behaviour is not surprising.

A 'complex systems approach' will emphasise a paradox - that while detailed behaviour cannot be predicted, very ordered patterns (so complex that they may at first sight appear to be random) can arise from quite simple relationships between the parts (e.g. the equations of motion of fluids).

Complex adaptive systems.

A complex adaptive system has the capacity to adapt to and with its environment. It has ordered behaviour and this changes over time in a purposeful way. To achieve this, it contains within it some internal representation of its environment (a 'schema').

The simplest examples of complex adaptive systems are computational models; the most complex are living systems.

A 'complex adaptive systems' approach brings to attention the way that the elements in a system communicate, make sense of each other and the environment and co-evolve with that environment.

Living systems

The characteristic of living systems is that they make themselves, they do not require an external maker. This circularity in their pattern of organisation is emphasised in the theory of autopoesis (literally, 'self-making').

A 'living systems' perspective will bring to attention this organisational closure, and the consequence that a living system will respond to 'outsiders' in such a way as to preserve the meaning that represents this closure.

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