Organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems

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Speaking about complex adaptive systems (CAS), we presuppose that a system’s complexity is seen due to the interaction of its elements and its connection with the environment. Some scientists argue that organizations can be treated as CAS, but McDaniel emphasizes that they have many common characteristics (diverse agents that interact, self-organization, co-evolvement with the environment, etc.) and should be treated in this way (2007). As a result, of complexity, a range of problems tend to occur in the framework of the organization. To deal with them, a systems approach and action research are commonly used, as they are thought to be the most effective.

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Being the representatives of CAS, organizations tend to be treated as problematic units. Managers, whose task is to ensure that the organization is moving forward to its goals and operates efficiently, need to cope with various problems and provide direction. Mainly they occur due to the lack of regulation, not carefully designed products, vague boundaries, challenging market environment, globalization, political and economic issues. Thus, the managers need to consider a wide scope of external pressures and balance activities with them. Of course, none of them are static, which means that constant adaptation should be considered if the organization is willing to achieve success in the market, in other words, maintain its fitness. Thus, the main problems addressed by managers are:

  • Realize that the organization is tightly connected to other entities;
  • Find the best way to maintain fitness;
  • Design the steps needed to adapt to the environment (landscape);
  • Consider how the organization can remain fit if the landscape changes constantly as well as other entities that operate in it;
  • Identify the relationship between the organization and its environment;
  • Design the solution (strategy) for the organization to deal with dynamic issues (Stacey 2011).

Thus, it can be seen that the problems within the organization and outside from it are connected. Fawcett, Waller, and Fawcett (2010) state that trying to solve organizational issues with the reference to its environment, managers utilize the systems approach, as it considers the discussed relationship. According to it, they start with defining the things that influence the organization and then search for the linkages between it and its environment. Moreover, this approach discusses human intentionality, which is an integral part of the landscape and cannot be neglected. Except for that, systems analysis can help to translate theory into practice by streamlining the process of turning findings into the steps for implementation.

When trying to find a solution to all mentioned issues and applying systems analysis, the managers must enhance their knowledge of a problem situation. For this purpose, different researchers can be used. However, it is crucial to choose the one that concentrates on all elements of research. Considering the problems faced by the organizations, such things should be discussed:

  • Framework of ideas. The framework of knowledge within a particular sphere. It can be a strategy as managers refer to it when they need to direct organizations.
  • Methodology. The way, in which the framework of ideas is applied. The best practices of applying the strategy can be discussed.
  • Area of concern. The problem, on which the research is focused. It can be an issue of entering a foreign market. Managers will apply some strategies to solve it (Jackson, 2000).

To solve organizational problems, the managers should refer to the type of research that is useful for them, investigates different disciplines and focuses on a large scope of ideas. Action research occurs to be the best variant in this perspective. It allows checking if the theory works in practice. In this way, both practical and scientific approaches are considered, which enhances the knowledge about the problem situation. Barton, Stephens, and Haslett (2009) underline that action research treats the system in its environment, including social variables, which is considered to be critical according to Stacey (2011) and McDaniel (2007). It tends not only to investigate the issue that is discussed by both managers and scientists but also to influence the problem situation. As a result, the credibility of action research and its practical effectiveness cannot be denied. It addresses the concern to the framework of ideas and methodology, making them interconnected and leading to more knowledge.

The systems approach occurs to be tightly connected with the action research. The research turns methodology into an area of concern that can also be successfully investigated with the help of a systems approach. Jackson (2010) stated that there is a link between “systems methodologies and the translation of social theory into a practical form of intervention” (p. 18). So action research increases the knowledge of managers by helping them to find the solutions to the main issues. The systems approach can also be seen as a learning system, as it provides an opportunity to define new aspects of these problems. In this way, it is possible to define the boundaries of the issue and intervention, which includes action research.

Stacey (2011) mentions that a group of people who work in the organization can be seen as an open system, “in which individuals are also open systems”, and this opinion is supported by McDaniel (2007). They are hard to define because they alter constantly. The only way to learn about them is to refer to the action research. With its help, Barton et al. (2009) stated that “any philosophical system is inadequate if not grounded in the level of the full richness of lived experience” (476). They underline that almost every management activity can be analyzed with the help of this research, as it diagnoses the issues. The researchers also support each other claiming that the open system learns from the environment and is influenced by it. In this way, the previously mentioned idea that the elements of the system are affected by the landscape and each other can be proved. It also presupposes that the system has a dynamic property, which leads to the occurrence of dynamic issues and can be addressed by action research. In this way, this research increases the knowledge about the issue (advantageous for science) and provides strategies to deal with them (advantageous for practice).

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In the dynamic and complex environment, organizations face a range of problems that can be identified when considering an organization from the perspective of the systems approach. Action research, in its turn, helps to deepen into the issues and find the best solutions. Used as one of the main sources, Stacey (2011) reviled the necessity of systems thinking and cognition and discussed how managers can benefit by connecting systems and strategy when solving problems. Barton et al. (2009) concentrated more on action research and its relation to open systems.


Barton, J., Stephens, J. & Haslett, T. (2009). Action research: Its foundations in open systems thinking and relationship to the scientific method. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 22(6), 475-488.

Fawcett, S., Waller, M., & Fawcett, A. (2010). Elaborating a dynamic systems theory to understand collaborative inventory successes and failures. International Journal of Logistics Management, 21(3), 510-537.

Jackson, M. (2000). Systems approaches to management. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic.

McDaniel, R. (2007). Management strategies for complex adaptive systems: Sensemaking, learning, and improvisation. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 20(2), 21-41.

Stacey, R. (2011). Strategic management and organizational dynamics: the challenge of complexity. Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson.

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