Complex, but not Complicated

Some will know I have been (and am) highly critical of management practice within the FE sector. I’m sure some have said: “Well, of course, it’s easy for you moan Bea, but what would you DO about it?”

Contrary to popular belief, I certainly do have a diagnosis and remedial position in mind. Whether anyone is willing to take any of it on board is (necessarily) a matter of admitting there’s a problem to begin with. That’s a different question.

However, I will say that my position rests on complexity theory, and the assertion that large organisations (anything over 50 or so people) are dynamic systems that go through long periods of stasis, evolving into chaos, and then reasserting a new stasis within different parameters. This is referred to as the Punctuated Equilibrium Model (PEM). PEM is characteristic of human systems where a great number of unpredictable causes and effects are naturally in place. I would go as far as to say this is the nature of human society; we are (by our nature) dynamic and unpredictable.
As part of PEM, organisations (colleges, large AE bodies, national charities…) are complex adaptive systems (CAS). Recognising the natural evolution of such systems means that command-and-control processes have no long-term efficacy. In fact these (usually hierarchical, or pseudo-hierarchical) systems are inefficient, counter-productive, and in fact produce the exact opposite of that for which they are designed: innovative thinking and total-learning cultures. What they often produce is repetitive results, overly-pragmatic thinking, obsequiousness, and a structure-obsessed culture that develops such corrosive phenomena as alienation and negative power.

What is clear, and has been stated many times by those studying CAS, is that extremely flattened hierarchies with localised autonomy is the best way to produce innovative work. In addition, their should be no fear of internal conflict. Indeed, internal conflict is a necessary change-maker in dynamic systems, allowing a culture to grow and develop (and hence create communities of practice which have a life of their own).

Far too often large organisation resist conflict, try to iron it out of systems, and consequently kill the very goose that is laying golden eggs. If you want to judge an organisations dynamic health, ask yourself the question: To what extent is conflict welcomed, and is seen as beneficial to the overall sense of progressiveness? If there’s even the slightest hint of resistance (“peace at any cost”) then you’re in trouble. And remember: this needs a sense of honesty to gain a true evaluation.

If I was speaking to staff in organisations about their long-term future, I’d be saying: abandon your old thinking. Create a natural dynamism that is productive by using change as a normal state of affairs, and not something that is resisted. Make sure change is part of everyday work and welcomed at all levels. Do not obsess over the usual core-vs-periphery approach. Forget it. Trust people’s self-interest to make the best decisions for themselves. Look on all work as equally vital, and subject to chaotic processes, managed by encouraging local responsibility to create their own stasis out of chaotic human interrelations. In particular, allow very large amounts of control over learning systems and methodology to the student body itself. It’s fearful for those who see this as losing their status and power, but ultimately works (as I have found).
A very simple example: Instead of promoting a one-size-fits-all templated lesson planning system, abandon this altogether. Instead, provide a vast array of possible examples of lesson planning and encourage all staff to produce even more. This creates a natural ‘chaos’ out of which comes a culture responsiveness to change by using tools that work for individuals at the ‘chalk face’. In fact, this professionalises staff, as they are empowered to make their own decisions, rather than rely of others to establish a (stultifying) norm.

Complexity theory. It works. You know it makes sense. Or am I talking to myself?