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Re-cognising Learning and Teaching: Opening the Space of Possibility

Complexity and the Enterprise

From: Edgar Morin On Complexity

Chapter Five: Complexity and the Enterprise


Let’s take a contemporary tapestry. It is made up of threads of linen, cotton, and wool, in various colors. To know this tapestry it would be interesting to know the laws and the principles concerning each type of thread. However, the sum of knowledge of these types of thread used in the tapestry is insufficient for knowing the new reality that is the fabric, with the qualities and properties that are proper to this texture. It is also incapable of helping us know its form and its configuration.

In the first stage of complexity we have simple knowledge that does not help to know the properties of the whole. A banal observation that has consequences that are not banal; the tapestry is more than the sum of the threads that make it up. A whole is more than the sum of the parts.

In the second stage of complexity, the fact that there is a tapestry means that the qualities of this or that type of thread cannot all be fully expressed. They are inhibited or virtualized. The whole is, therefore, less than the sum of its parts.

The third stage of complexity poses problems for our capacity to understand, and for our mental structure. The whole is at the same time more and less than the sum of its parts.

In this tapestry, as in an organization, the threads are not placed randomly. They are organized based on a canvas, on a synthetic unity where each part works together with the whole. The tapestry itself is a perceptible and knowable phenomenon that cannot be explained by any simple law.


An organization such as an enterprise is situated in the marketplace. It produces objects or services, things that become exterior to it and enter into the world of consumption. To limit oneself to a heteroproductive vision of the enterprise would be insufficient, because by producing things and services the enterprise also produces itself. This means that it produces all the elements necessary to its own survival and its own organization. In organizing production of objects and services, it organizes itself, it maintains itself, if necessary it repairs itself, if things go well it develops itself as it develops its production.

Thus in producing products that are independent of the producer, a process develops by which the producer produces itself. On the one hand, its self-production is necessary to the production of objects, and on the other hand, the production of objects is necessary to its self-production.

Complexity appears in this statement: Things are produced at the same time we self-produce; the producer itself is its own product.

This statement creates a few problems of causality.

First, linear causality: If with some raw material, applying some process of transformation, we produce some consumer object, we are in a frame of linear causality: x cause produces y effects.

Second, feedback loop causality: An enterprise needs to be regulated. It must carry out its production based on external needs, from the power of its work and its internal energy capacity. But we know-have known for about 40 years now, thanks to cybernetics-that the effect (sales or slumps) can feed back to stimulate or slow the production of objects and services in the enterprise.

Third, recursive causality: In the recursive process, the effects and products are necessary to the process that creates them. The product is producer of that which produces it.

These three causalities are found at all levels of complex organizations. Society, for example, is produced by the interactions between the people that make it up. Society itself, as an organized and organizing whole, feeds back to produce the individuals through education, language, and school. The individuals, in their interactions, produce society, which produces the individuals that produce it. This creates a spiral circuit through historical evolution.

This understanding of complexity requires a relatively deep change in our mental structures. The risk, if this change of mental structures were not to take place, would be to direct us toward pure confusion or the denial of problems. There are not, on the one side, individuals, and, on the other, society; on one side species, and on the other individuals, on one side the enterprise, with its plan, its production program, its marketing study, and on the other, its problems with human relations, personnel, public relations. The two processes are inseparable and interdependent.


The enterprise, the living organism, self-organizes and produces itself. At the same time, it carries out self-eco-organizing and self-eco-production. This complex concept deserves elucidating.

The enterprise is situated in an exterior environment that is in turn integrated in a eco-organized system or ecosystem. Let’s take the example of plants or animals: their chronobiological processes know the cycle of day and night as well as the cycle of the seasons. Cosmic order is, in a way, integrated in the interior of the organization of living species.

Let’s look at this further, through an experiment carried out in 1951in the planetarium at Bremen on a migrating bird, the warbler. The planetarium projected the sky and constellations from Germany to Egypt in front of the bird’s eyes because it migrates toward the valley of the Nile in winter. In the planetarium, the bird followed the map of the sky without fail, and stopped under the sky of Luxor. It thus “computed” its itinerary based on celestial milestones. This experience proves that the warbler had, in a manner of speaking, the sky in its head.

We human beings know the world through the messages that our senses transmit to our brains. The world is present inside our minds, which are inside the world.

The principle of self-eco-organization has a holographic value. As the holographic image is linked to the fact that each point possesses the quasi totality of information about the whole, so, in a certain manner, the whole as a whole of which we are a part is present in our minds. Simplified vision would be to say that the part is in the whole. Complex vision says that not only is the part in the whole; the whole is in the part that is inside the whole! This complexity is something other than the confusion of the whole in the whole and vice versa.

This is true of each cell of our organism that contains the totality of the genetic code present in our bodies. This is true of society: from childhood, society imprints itself in our minds, through education in families, schools, and universities.

We are facing extremely complex systems where the part is in the whole and the whole is in the part. This is true of the enterprise with its rules of functioning and within which the laws of an entire society are in play.


An enterprise self-eco-organizes in its market, which market is a phenomenon that is at once ordered, organized, and random. It is random because there is no absolute certainty about the opportunities and possibilities of selling products and services, even if there are possibilities, probabilities, and plausibilities. The market is a mixture of order and disorder.

Unhappily-or happily-the entire universe is a cocktail of order, disorder, and organization. We are in a universe from which we cannot exclude risk, uncertainty, and disorder. We have to live and deal with disorder.

Order refers to everything that is repetition, constant, invariant, everything that can be put under the aegis of a highly probable relation, framed within the dependence of a law.

Disorder refers to everything that is irregularity, deviation as regards a given structure, random, unpredictability.

In a universe of pure order, there would be no innovation, no creation, no evolution. There would be no life or human existence. But neither would any existence be possible in pure disorder, because there would be no element of stability on which to found an organization.

Organizations need order and they need disorder. In a universe in which systems submit to growth of disorder and tend to disintegrate, their organization allows them to drive back, capture, and use disorder.

Every organization, like every physical, organizational, and, of course, living phenomenon, tends to degrade and degenerate. The phenomenon of disintegration and decadence is a normal phenomenon. In other words, what is normal is not that things last as they are, which would, on the contrary be worrisome. There is no recipe for equilibrium. The only way to fight against degeneration is permanent regeneration, in other words, the aptitude of the whole of the organization to regenerate, and to organize itself by facing all disintegrating processes.


Order, disorder, program, strategy!

The notion of strategy is in opposition to the notion of program.

A program is a sequence of predetermined actions that must function in circumstances that allow their completion. If the external circumstances are unfavorable, the program stops or fails. As we saw earlier, strategy, on the other hand, elaborates one or several scenarios. From the beginning, strategy prepares itself, if there is anything new or unexpected, to integrate, modify, or enrich its action.

The advantage of a program is obviously a great economy: we don’t have to think, everything is done automatically. A strategy, on the contrary, is determined by taking account of a random situation, adverse or even adversarial elements, and it is brought to modify itself depending on information furnished en route, it can have a great deal of flexibility. But a strategy, in order for it to be carried out by an organization, requires that the organization not be conceived to obey a program, but that it can work with elements capable of contributing to the elaboration and development of the strategy.

I believe, therefore, that our ideal model of functionality and rationality is not only an abstract model, it is also a harmful model. It is harmful for those who are in administration and in fact, for the whole of social life. Such a model is obviously rigid, and everything that is programmed suffers from rigidity in comparison with strategy. Of course, from an administrative perspective we cannot say that everyone should become a strategist because that would result in total disorder. However, in general, the problems of rigidity and the development of possibilities and “adaptability” is avoided, which favors sclerosis in the bureaucratic phenomenon.

Bureaucracy is ambivalent. Bureaucracy is rational because it applies to impersonal rules that apply to everyone, and it ensures cohesion and functionality in an organization. On the other hand, bureaucracy can be criticized as a pure instrument of decisions that aren’t necessarily rational. Bureaucracy can be considered a parasitic totality in which several blockages and bottlenecks develop. It can become a parasitic phenomenon in the heart of society.

We can, therefore, consider the problem of bureaucracy under this double parasitic and rational angle, and it is a shame that sociological thought has not jumped the hurdle of this alternative. Without a doubt, sociology has not jumped it because the problem of bureaucracy and administration must first be formulated in fundamental terns at the level of complexity.

The vice of the Tayloristic conception of work was that it considered humans only as physical machines. Then we realized that humans were also biological: we adapted biological humans to their work and the working conditions to the humans; Then, when we realized that there were also psychological humans, who where frustrated by these fractured tasks, we invented job enrichment. The evolution of work illustrates the passage from one-dimensionality to multidimensionality. We are only at the beginning of this process.

The factor of play is a factor of disorder but also of flexibility: imposing an unshakable order within an enterprise is not efficient. All instructions that require, the immediate shut down of the sector or the machine in the event of breakdown of unexpected incident are counter-efficient. Some initiative must be left to each level and to each individual.


Relations inside an organization, a society, an enterprise, are complementary and antagonistic at the same time. This antagonistic complementarity is founded on an extraordinary ambiguity. Daniel Moth€, once a professional worker at Renault, describes how in his division an informal, secret, clandestine association took shape against the rigid organization of work, permitting workers to gain a bit of personal autonomy and freedom. This secret organization created a flexible organization of work. The resistance was collaborative, and through it, things worked.

This example can be extended to multiple domains, for example, to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, created in 1933 for political and regular German prisoners. In the beginning, the regular prisoners had jobs as Kapos and minor responsibilities in accounting, in the kitchen. The political prisoners made it clear that they could make things work better, without misappropriation or loss. The SS entrusted the communist political prisoners with the care of this organization. In this way a communist organization collaborated with the SS while fighting against it. The victory of the allies and the liberation of the camp turned this collaboration into a form of resistance.

Let’s take the case of the Soviet economy until 1990. It was regulated, in principle, by central planning, which was hyperrigid, hypermeticulous, and so forth. The extremely strict, programmed, imperative character of this planning made it inapplicable. It worked, through a lot of negligence because there was cheating and wangling at every level. For example, directors of enterprises called each other to exchange products. This meant that at the top there were rigid orders, but at the bottom there was spontaneous organizing anarchy. Frequent absenteeism was necessary because the work conditions were such that people had to be absent to find other small odd jobs to complement their salaries. This spontaneous anarchy expressed the population’s resistance to and collaboration with the system that oppressed it.

In other words, the economy of the USSR worked because of this spontaneously anarchic response on the part of individuals to anonymous orders from on high, and, of course, there must have been elements of coercion for it to work. However, it did not work only because there were police. It worked also because there was a tolerance of what was happening at the base, and this tolerance ensured the functioning of an absurd machine that otherwise could not have functioned.

In fact, the system did not fall apart. It was a political decision that led to its abandonment because of its enormous waste, its weak performance, its lack of inventiveness. While it lasted, it was spontaneous anarchy that made programmed planning function. It was resistance within the machine that made the machine work.

Disorder constitutes the inevitable, necessary, and often fecund response to the sclerotic, schematic, abstract, and simplifying character of order.

A global historical problem is, therefore, posed: How to integrate into enterprises the freedom and disorder that can bring adaptiveness and inventiveness but can also bring decomposition and death.


There is, therefore, an ambiguity of battle, of resistance, of collaboration, of antagonism, and complementarity necessary to organizational complexity. The problem rests on an excess of complexity, which, in the end, is destructuring.

One can say loosely that the more an organization is complex, the more it tolerates disorder. This gives it a certain vitality because the individuals are apt to take initiatives to fix this or that problem without having to go through a central hierarchy it is a more intelligent way to respond to certain challenges from the outside. However, an excess of complexity ends up destructuring. To a certain extent, an organization that has only freedom and very little order, would disintegrate unless it had, in addition to this freedom, a deep solidarity between its members. Lived solidarity is the only thing that allows an increase in complexity. In the end, informal networks, collaborative resistances, autonomy, disorder are the necessary ingredients for the vitality of enterprises.

This can open a world of reflections. Thus the atomization of our society requires new solidarity spontaneously lived and not imposed by the law, like social security.