Managing (universities) in an age of complexity

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

I have just read an article by Dr Jean Boulton titled Managing in an Age of Complexity.  I really enjoyed reading this article.  I think the main reason was that it resonated with me and my context working for an Australian University.

The key message of Boulton’s article is that decision-making is founded on the assumption of certainty.  But is this assumption sound?  Do we live in a world of certainty and determinism.  Is there a simple cause and effect relationship to our decision-making?  Boulton postulates that there are two reasons for our assumption of certainty for decision-making.  The first is psychological.  Humans desire certainty and control.  On reflection, this stands to reason.  There would be few people that would enjoy a lack of structure, order or control of one’s circumstances.  The second reason is founded in pattern entrainment. Let me explain.  The philosopher Aristotle postulated “that to be rational is to be superior” (Boulton).   In the 17th century, Isaac Newton demonstrated the physics underpinning the movement of the planets around the sun to be founded by 3 simple laws.  A mechanical system.  Apply rationality, and the success of Isaac Newton’s concept of mechanical systems became the foundation of all our thinking about systems and decision-making.  So why is this pattern entrainment?  David Jones describes pattern entrainment as follows.

Dave Snowden has given me the term “pattern entrainment” for the tendency for peoples conceptions to be limited, entrained based on the successes of the past. What has worked for us in the past, becomes the source of all our thinking about the future.

So society has applied the successful theories of Isaac Newton around mechanical systems as a foundation of decision-making in all systems.  However, are all systems mechanical?

Boulton lists the following attributes of a mechanical system:

  • Does not interact with the outside world
  • Simple interactions between parts
  • Parts identical within the same class
  • Parts and interactions cannot change

These attributes certainly do not apply to the higher education system.  In fact, it would contradict every one of those attributes.  So what type of system is higher education?  Boulton introduces the concept of a complex system.  In doing so, she introduces the research of Russian-born physicist Ilya Prigogine where he developed a theory known as non-equilibrium thermodynamics.  His theory “recognises that most systems in the real world are … constantly changing due to their exchange of energy with the environment.  These types of systems came to be called complex systems.” (Boulton)

Attributes of a complex system are described by Boulton as:

  • Unpredictable; things in general do not go to plan
  • Non-average; small events can have big effects
  • Without diversity, there is no learning
  • Structures that are interconnected are more adaptable to changing circumstances
  • Systems may self-organise at tipping points
  • New characteristics sometimes emerge in a way that can neither be predicted nor planned

This seems a much better fit for Higher Education to me.  So how do we manage a complex system?  I believe Boulton suggests that we embrace the uncertainty and develop strategies to cope with it.  Consider unexpected events as opportunities rather than threats.  To do this, she suggests that we focus on interconnections, networks, cross-functional processes, informality, relationships and encouraging diversity within the system.

Other suggestions for approaches to managing complex systems include:

  • Scanning and fore-sighting
  • Handling complexity
  • Weaving a vision
  • Using judgement
  • Empowering others
  • Collaborating
  • Ability to adapt to changing circumstances and seize opportunities

A quote that resonates well with my context in higher education:

Everywhere around us organisations and individuals are expected to take measurements and take decisions based on their implied certainty. Schools, teachers and pupils are subject to more and more measurements; the content of courses and the way to teach them is increasingly set out in rigid fashion.

I am seeing more and more of this happening at my institution often in the name of quality.  And what of it?  Boulton continues with a quote from Mintzberg:

And, in one sense, what is wrong with all this? Of course, nothing is wrong with it – if it works, if it really leads to better management decisions, and better outcomes. But does it? Mintzberg, the well-known and respected guru
on strategy and organisations, has this to say:
“We’ve become prisoners of measurement; audits, league tables, targets. It just destroys creativity.
I am not opposed to measuring things that can be measured
– I’m opposed to letting those things drive everything else out. It has some destructive effects in business, but in education and healthcare it is absolutely devastating.
What would happen if we started from the premise that we can’t measure what matters and go from there? Then, instead of measurement, we’d have to use something very scary; it’s called judgement”.

As Mintzberg puts it, it destroys creativity.  I am seeing more and more of this too.

Time’s up for writing this blog post.  This article was a great read, and putting into my own words Boulton’s message has been worthwhile.  I hope this summary proves useful to someone else.


5 thoughts on “Managing (universities) in an age of complexity

Add yours

  1. Also according to Snowden, the dominant paradigm requires significant disruption before people will be accepting of alternatives. To me, we have a dominant management paradigm that pre-dates the information age. The question is whether or not the information age will be the disruption that produces change in the way that universities operate. I think it will, and it will also get very ugly when it does.

    1. Thanks Col for your comments. They remind me of a presentation by George Siemens differentiating between connectives and collectives in terms of networks. I have written a summary of that presentation, but effectively the university community is a collective – an assimilation to common views and accepted ways of doing things. Those who don’t conform (connectives) to these collectively held norms are pressured to assimilate. A significant disruption to the norms of a collective can allow the dissidents (connectives) to influence the new order.

      I guess a significant disruption would generate a tipping-point at which time the system will self-organise to accommodate the disruption. The resulting self-organisation I agree will be ugly. 🙂


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