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Sound management practices / "voodoo" approach of popularizing complexity science
am 8. Juli 2013
My evaluation of Jurgen Appelo's book „Management 3.0“ is as follows:
* 5 points for the sound management practices minus
* 0 points for the theoretical / popularizing science part
equals 2,5 → 3 points.
Please, let me explain this evaluation a little bit:
5 stars target group of readers
„Management 3.0“ is a good start for those readers who haven't much knowledge neither of current management / organization studies nor of the loosely coupled discipline of complexity science. So, if you`re interested in applying down-to-earth management principles to make your organization / team more agile, then this is the book for you. But, forget the complexity science part (see below).
4 stars target group of readers
If you`re familiar with current management and organization literature, you might be disappointed because (besides the claim of basing management on complexity science) most of the principles and ideas are well-known. Therefore, 5 stars minus 1. But, at least, you have these principles and ideas in one place, and you don't have to read a lot of different management books. And that`s still a good thing.
2,5 stars target group of readers
If you`re familiar with complexity science, Jurgen Appelo`s attempt of „popularizing“ science is rather disappointing. What are the problems?
In the preface you can read statements like these:
„What makes this a unique management book is that it is grounded in science and leans heavily on complex systems theory.“ [p. XXIX]
„[..] you can read about research, metaphors, ideas, and suggestions. This won’t make the book less useful. On the contrary, it is claimed that the biggest advancements are made when ideas from one domain are copied and adapted in another.“ [p. XXXI]
Let me be crystal clear, the problem is not that this book is „not“ a scientific oeuvre. It`s a book that tries to popularize some general insights from complexity science. But, it`s the way „how“ these insights are popularized that is highly problematic:
When talking about management practices, teams, and organizations, we don't mean "complexity in general". We're talking about „social“ complexity. Normally, you'd expect that the social sciences (esp. sociological approaches on communication, power, knowledge, trust, etc. in interactions, organizations, and society as a whole) are mentioned. But, you won't find many social scientific references and insights in this book. "Management 3.0" is rather an example of studying „social“ phenomena without taking the social sciences, which are „specialized“ in analyzing these kinds of phenomena, into account.
If you think that`s no big deal then you might also think that it`s a good idea to talk to a priest, a sales person, or a politician, but not to visit a dentist when having tooth ache.
Appelo compensates his lack of more or less profound social scientific / sociological knowledge by resorting to:
* some „general“ principles of complex adaptive systems such as the notion of „system“ seen as an emergent dimension of interacting „agents“ (cells, animals, humans, etc.), the concept of „non linearity“, and so on,
* obsolete approaches such as the sender-receiver-model of communication, which is still useful for machine- and data-based communications, but not for human interactions,
* common sense assumptions regarding knowledge, trust, power, etc.,
* analogies and metaphors.
To sum up
In short, Jurgen Appelo's management approach is „less grounded“ in complexity science, but it consists mainly of semantic innovations (i.e., the theory of complex adaptive systems is used as a kind of „rhetorical device“) and a common sense-, analogy- and metaphor-based style of writing.
Consequences of Appelo's chosen
approach of popularizing science
This is just an Amazon review, so I'll mention only one consequence of Appelo's approach of popularizing science.
The general principle „a (complex adaptive) system emerges through the interactions of agents (who might be complex adaptive systems themselves)“ is "not an answer" that can simply be applied to various scientific disciplines (chemistry, biology, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, etc.) - it`s an hypothesis! At the same time, „emergence“ is not a self-evident solution - it`s a problem that has to be addressed!
When Jurgen Appelo uses an inference such as „general system principle + bunch of people = agents → emergent social system (groups, projects, organizations)“, then this inference is without any scientific value because it explains nothing. This is rather a case of magical thinking regarding emergence and systems. To be (social) scientifically valid, you`d have to explain „how“ social emergence is possible and how it works exactly (including the question of how to conceptualize the emergent social dimension). Sociologists such as Niklas Luhmann have done exactly that by conceptualizing „communication“ as an emergent social mechanism.
The essential thing in this context isn't Luhmann`s concept of communication. The essential thing is to „develop“ a mechanism whatsoever that is able to explain the problem of the social as an emergent coordination mechanism. But Appelo`s common sense solution is rather: There`s nothing to explain because when there`s an interaction of a bunch of people then we have a social system that is emergent, complex, adaptive, non linear, etc.
Consequently, when it comes to management, teams, and organization, according to Appelo`s approach, we have just a „bunch of people doing something“. That`s what common sense has always known. And this knowledge is very rudimentary so that, for example, organizations are compared to something living like plants due to a lack of understanding the underlying social dynamics.