Complexity theory, developed initially from the study of biological and other physical phenomena, can help IT managers to understand the underlying causes of systems failures, a recent meeting of the BCS Sociotechnical Group heard.
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Research to support this conclusion was reported to the meeting by Eve Mitleton-Kelly, director of the Complexity Research Programme at the London School of Economics (LSE), and Frank Land, emeritus professor of IS at the LSE.
Their research, sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, explores how complexity theory can be applied to real-world problems such as IT failures.
One problem it identified is legacy. "One of the major problems with the legacy issue is the belief that it is primarily a technical matter. But problems usually arise because of interactions between a multiplicity of interdependent social and technical factors, within and outside an organisation," said Mitleton-Kelly.
Complexity theory emphasises the significance of relationships, feedback and the degree of connectedness between these elements as they evolve. Such evolution can lead to the emergence of new structures or patterns of behaviour that could not have been predicted from understanding each element.
The greater the degree of connectedness between elements, the more likely the new order will organise itself in a manner that enables successful growth and adaptation to be sustained in unpredictable circumstances.
One case study concerned a bank whose move to the euro was facilitated by employing complexity principles to establish an environment designed to increase the connectedness between business and IT. This facilitated the early identification and resolution of technical issues.
Mitleton-Kelly warned that legacy problems were the outcome of restricted evolution and inadequate feedback between the changing business process and IT development, which typically unfold along separate evolutionary paths.
A new IT system can quickly become a problematic legacy because of a growing misalignment between business goals and technical systems.
As co-evolution is unpredictable, outcomes can become destructive as well as productive. An essential aspect of an appropriate enabling environment is to use complexity theory to understand the underlying sociotechnical dynamics.
"The aim is to keep a balance between the prescribed and the emergent to allow space for self organisation and a degree of risk-taking in exploring the possibilities, with everyone appreciating their responsibility for avoiding risk for the well-being of the organisation," said Mitleton-Kelly.
In a business context, complexity theory provides an explanatory framework of how organisations behave - how individuals and organisations interact, relate and evolve within a larger social ecosystem. Complexity theory also explains why interventions may have unanticipated consequences. Interrelationships of elements within a complex system give rise to multiple chains of dependencies.
Source:Eve Mitleton-Kelly, LSE