Peter Drucker Forum 2013: “The embarrassment of complexity” by Helga Nowotny

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At the 2013 Peter Drucker Forum, Helga Nowotny looked at the embarrassment of complexity and in particular its positive sides. She argued that complexity can expand human capabilities by the clever use of technology linked to novel organizational forms. It humbles us in view of what can and cannot be predicted.

 

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Moving from the old to the new is not easy and thus can embarrass managers. There is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the new world at times. Doing more with less was at the core of the industrial revolution and has spurred management ever since.

Embarrassment comes to us when we realize that our answers are no longer the right ones. Managers need to act as though they can see everything and be in command even if they do not have all of the elements. In this sense managers have reduced models which they use to decrease complexity and help them make decisions. “But what if these models are no longer sufficient?” asked Ms. Nowotny.

We have come to rely too much on these tools and computer models. They have become indispensable for a variety of sectors. There is a downside to this as we come to rely on numbers, which may not give the whole picture.

When benchmarking and performance indicators take over we lose our ability to deal with complexity. Therefore, depending on how figures and models have been put together, models are marginalizing human judgment.

There are also positive sides to complexity and these may lead us to becoming more humble. We need to assess what we can and cannot predict yet complexity makes it more difficult to apportion credit and blame. Cognitive dissonance means that we also have a tendency to adjust our opinions and tend towards self-justification. An Example of this is the system of world finance which has become too difficult to manage. Worse, no one is prepared to stand up and accept the responsibility for the current crisis.

We are beginning to realize that we are part of a dynamic, complex system in the world. Evolution has brought us here. We now need to apply our collective knowledge and capacity to innovate and move forward.

We must make room so that we can cultivate human judgment.

Integrative thinking does not come out of computer models unless we put them in; therefore, it is up to us to understand our role in being part of the whole.

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