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Change - change - and more change...Life in the Workplace:

At the Edge of Chaos and Spirit

By John Richardson

The process of change and adaptation has always been a part of life. In recent times, the advent of computer and communications technologies have precipitated an unprecedented degree of change, particularly in the workplace environment. In addition to technology-driven change, the modern workplace has endured a sharp increase in corporate consolidations, hostile takeovers, regulatory modifications, and a host of new organizational development strategies and practices.

The intent to unleash innovation and creativity in the workplace has been a conscious goal of managers and CEOs since the early 1980’s. But going into the 21st century, success may well depend on other factors such as how a company appears in the eyes of the employees and society-at-large. Is the organization a trusted member of the community and a good global citizen? Does it view employees as nothing more than human capital? Governments and communities are recognizing that an organization's pursuit of purely selfish interests not only destroys the environment, but also the social fabric of society itself. Within this context of heightened social awareness, values-based management and spirituality in the workplace have arisen to advance a more holistic continuous improvement opportunity for postmodern business organizations.

The human species is in perhaps the most evolutionary, revolutionary period in its history. The demands being placed upon individuals and upon all systems, both natural and man-made, are intense and profound. Chaos has always been the engine which promotes growth and change in the universe. However, until recently, the rate of change in the workplace environment was not sufficiently fast enough to create a clear awareness of its character and effect. Coping with change has become a serious challenge in most all business related organizations. The recent emergence of a “new science” has gained considerable attention with respect to understanding and cooperating with conditions involving change and adaptation.

Complexity science, based on chaos theory, has stimulated a profound shift in the scientific community. Although this science is still very young, many insights into the workings of complex adaptive systems are already evident and suggest new directions of thought in the study and behavior of social organizations. A vital characteristic of complex adaptive systems is that they operate quite well in the absence of any hierarchical command and control. A bee hive and the body's immune system are just two examples of natural complex adaptive systems. Any number of complex adaptive systems of major consequence may arise within society. Take for example the recent and rapid growth of the Internet. Try to find the architect of the Internet. Given all the press the Internet has enjoyed, his or her name should be a household word. Failing that, identify the individual, team, or corporation now in control of the Internet. A Machine Age mind cannot fathom the notion that the Internet spontaneously organized itself, like some biological system. But that is precisely what has happened.

The source of complex systems analysis can be traced back to studies in biology. According to the biological view, the essential properties of a living system are properties of the whole. These properties emerge from the interactions of the parts and are destroyed if the system is broken apart. Complex adaptive systems are composed of a large collection of agents (or actors). These agents have individual rules of behavior, they act only locally within their environment, and their interactions are regarded as the connectivity within the system. The study of complexity science has only just recently begun to be applied to the management of business organizations.

The proposition is that a biological view of workplace organizations as complex adaptive systems may provide a more realistic and effective model than one based on a mechanistic cause-and-effect view. Some of the “properties” inherent in complex systems seem to mesh well with concepts associated with spirit-based organizational development and the evolution of consciousness itself. The properties of “emergence” and “self-organization” are key facets discovered in the behavior of complex systems. In complexity science terminology, a transition region referred to as the “edge of chaos” is a system state that is balanced between static stability and chaotic change. In natural co-evolutionary systems, the best “fitness” for adaptation and sustained development is found to lie in this region.

Complexity science has discovered that diverse cooperating groups have the capacity to achieve a higher overall fitness than homogeneous (similar) ones. This is due to the ability of cooperation to find new optimums, better than the ones available to agents in isolation. Within a complex system, the degree of connectivity can be simple (like a group on an isolated island), chaotic (highly connected - like multiple groups trying to occupy the same space, a war situation), or complex (optimized connectivity - like multiple groups maintaining their own autonomy, yet connected to neighboring groups sufficiently enough to allow exchange of ideas to the benefit of both). Changing the internal connectivity can therefore modify the stability of the system. In general terms, for self organization to occur in complex systems, the connectivity must be neither too little nor too great.

Chaos theory refers to an “unknown evolutionary force” at the “edge of chaos” that appears to promote natural, uncontrolled self-organization in the adaptive behavior of complex systems. What is this unknown evolutionary force that is responsible for natural self organization? What is the cause of its existence? What is spirit? From where does it arise? Is it not quite possible that this unknown evolutionary force and spirit are, in fact, one and the same? From the point of view of chaos theory, this unknown force is the engine that naturally drives self-organization and emergence (under the condition that the system is truly complex in nature). From this perspective, this force is seen from the outside in. That is, its existence is implied from the observation of the behavior of phenomena. Whereas from the spiritual frame of reference, it is perceived from the inside out, as arising into and as phenomenal existence from a unified source of intelligent creativity. Perhaps this unknown force and spirit are the same thing, self originating without cause and coincident with the source of life and consciousness itself.

The context of participation in the global market place is a continuous field of change. A robust adaptive capacity is paramount for the survival of each and every business entity. From complexity science, we now suspect that viewing a business organization as an organic-like structure provides the best model for managing the system through promoting conditions that allow the principles of self organization and emergence to arise naturally. At this point in human evolution, it also seems safe and intelligent to promote the principles of spirituality in the workplace to facilitate mindfulness, trust, and values-based visionary leadership within the workforce and the living organizations they comprise.

Spirituality in the workplace coupled with the management of business organizations as complex adaptive systems could be complimentary. As an example, consider the issue of connectivity --the degree and quality of interaction between people, departments, and divisions within a corporation. Complexity science could be employed to assist in directly managing the “degree” of connectivity to promote natural and optimal self organization and adaptability. The principles of spirituality could be employed to enhance the “quality” of exchange between the connecting entities themselves simultaneously infusing a sense of well-being and enthusiasm.

In complexity science, diversity is found to increase stability at the edge of chaos in complex adaptive systems. The appreciation of diversity, valuing differences in the workplace, is a basic principle of spirit-based organizational development. Therefore “diversity” is seen to be a common valuable asset in both disciplines.

The application of complexity science in organizational management strategies and the infusing of spirituality into the workplace constitute a new wave of potentiality for the manifestation of dynamic co-evolutionary business networks. There now exists an opportunity, at the edge of chaos and spirit, to promote the complimentary consolidation of scientific and spiritual application; to synergize the principles of complexity science and spirituality in the workplace to facilitate robust adaptability, sustained development, and deep personal satisfaction from within the business and organizational structures that comprise our everyday lives.

John Richardson holds a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas. He is manager of Manufacturing Engineering systems at Texas Instruments and has over 20 years of experience in US Industry. He was elected to the Technical Staff of Texas instruments in 1989 and has authored over 15 papers and publications. John can be contacted at

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