What's the Problem with Complexity

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:30
Location: Seminar 31 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Frank MEIER, University of Bremen, Germany
Uli MEYER, Technical University of Berlin, Germany
Institutional theory increasingly focuses on institutional pluralism in terms of tensions, challenges, conflicts and problems. The central theoretical concept in the newer discussion is that of institutional complexity. The literature quickly developed a specific and quite narrow perspective on institutional pluralism, which is strongly reminiscent of the presumed dead contingency theory. The paper proposes a fresh perspective on this fundamental issue by drawing on both classical and contemporary organization theory and by productively addressing two downsides of the complexity literature: (a) the reduction of organizational activity to “responses” and (b) the reduction of heterogeneity to a “challenge” or a “problem”.


What’s the problem with “organizational responses”?

Environments do not simply happen to organizations. Instead, one needs to look at (a) how organizations choose their environment, (b) how organizations (try to) shape their environment, (c) how organizations make sense of and enact their environment.

What’s the problem with heterogeneity as a problem?

(a) Heterogeneity is not only a problem, rather heterogeneity is often a resource. Even more fundamentally: organizations are always situated in heterogeneous environments. Many of them are quite successful. Dealing with institutional heterogeneity is the raison d’être of many organizations. In a sense one can even say that heterogeneity is what organizations are made for, dealing with heterogeneity is what organizing is all about.

(b) The idea of pluralism is highly institutionalized in many fields. Many arrangements that enable or ensure pluralism are highly institutionalized. So are many arrangements that help mediating tensions between institutional demands. Institutionalized patterns of organizing are often already compromises.

(c) When we are interested in the problematic aspects of heterogeneity, we need to understand the precise structure of the problem. Here we propose a basic framework by spelling out some fundamental problem dimensions.