Cover image for Harnessing complexity : organizational implications of a scientific frontier
Harnessing complexity : organizational implications of a scientific frontier
Axelrod, Robert M.
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, 1999.
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xviii, 184 pages ; 22 cm
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HM131 .A897 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Management theorists are increasingly turning to complexity science in their search for answers to questions about organizational behavior. Axelrod and Cohen are professors of public policy. Their perspective on complexity is on building effective teams from complex groups of individuals. Axelrod is the author of the groundbreaking The Evolution of Cooperation (1984) and its follow-up, The Complexity of Cooperation (1997). Cohen has served on the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, a leading research facility in the field of complexity. Drawing on their research done for a report on national information policy by the Highlands Forum under the aegis of the Department of Defense, the authors offer numerous business, political, and cultural applications for their model of complex adaptive systems. Clarifying the differences between complexity and chaos theories, they trace the principles of complex adaptive systems to evolutionary biology, computer science, and social design; and they outline three key processes of such systems: variation, interaction, and selection. --David Rouse

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a world where companies are forced to adapt to an ever more quickly changing marketplace, where people from diverse backgrounds must work together in order to solve problems rapidly and the future is hard to predict, wouldn't it be wonderful if all this complexity could work to your advantage? Axelrod (The Evolution of the Corporation) and Cohen (a consultant to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center), both professors at the University of Michigan, aim to draw on the principles of evolutionary biology, computer science and social design to explain the functioning of "complex adaptive systems" (specifically businesses), and how to improve them. They explore such abstract issues as whether to encourage variation in a rapidly changing situation (whether it refers to a diversity of products or problem-solving approaches, variety is defined as "the raw material for adaptation"); the impact of manipulating interactions (with respect to time as well as both physical and conceptual space) in an organization; and how to select and support the most viable individuals, teams, systems or business strategies that emerge. Although their schematic approach and well-drawn anecdotal examples yield pragmatic insights, Axelrod and Cohen rely on somewhat idiosyncratic terminology to make their key points: "Agents of a variety of types use their strategies in patterned interaction, with each other and with artifacts" (authors' emphasis). While most managers are aware of complexity theory and are eager to learn how to adapt it to their organizations, some may be put off by the convoluted language used here. Agent, Raphael Sagalyn. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

I Introduction
Introduction to the Framework
The Difficulty of Prediction
Complexity Research
The Design of Organizations and Strategies
The Information Revolution
Complexity and Information
Adaptation and Information
Complexity as a Way of Thinking
II Variation
The Role of Variation
Altering the Frequency of Types
Copying With Error
Endogenous Copying Mechanisms
Recombining Mechanisms
Exploration Versus Exploitation
Example: Military Personnel Systems
Whether to Encourage Variety
Example: Linux Software Development
Extinction -- The Vanishing of Types
III Interaction
The Importance of Interaction
Example: Social Capital
How Interaction Works
Proximity and Activation
Spaces: Physical and Conceptual
Example: Combating the AIDS Virus, Part 1
External Methods of Changing Interaction Patterns
Barriers to Movement in Time and Physical Space
Barriers to Movement in Conceptual Spaces
Semi-permeable Barriers
Example: Combating the AIDS Virus, Part 2
Activation in Sequence or in Parallel
Internal Methods of Changing Interaction Patterns
Following Another Agent
Following a Signal
Example: Tags in the Prisoner's Dilemma
Forming Boundaries
Separating Time Scales
Redistributing Stress
Example: Modes of Failure in Information Systems
Organizing Routines
Restructuring of Physical and Conceptual Spaces
IV Selection
Defining Criteria of Success
Example: Prize Competitions
Determining the Level of Selection
Selection of Agents
Selection of Strategies
Attributing Credit for Success and Failure
Example: Military Simulation
Creating New Agents or Strategies
The Key Role of Copying
Detailed Differences Among Generic Copying Processes
Exercising Visible Leadership
V Conclusion
The Central Elements of the Framework
How the Elements Form a Coherent Framework
What a User of the Framework Asks
What a User of the Framework Can Do
What May Come of This Approach