Review articles that take a complex approach to new organisational structures and proposed several argumentations.

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N° 02029006                DMOT - STRUCTURE


Since few years, Complexity theories have been playing a very important role in the studies of organisations. According to complexity researchers, all organisations are complex adaptive systems that continuously self organise and co-evolve (Ashmos et al’s - 2002). Instead of being rigid and closed, organisations are now rather seen as flexible, adaptive and opened. These systems have to organise, develop and compete by managing the environment, which changes always faster and is unpredictable. Complexity science is another way to explain organisations, because this science is linked with organisational studies by dynamical concepts that give right to order and structure in open systems. Metaphors drawn from the language of complexity science permit to attempt these directly onto management practice (Fuller et al’s - 2001).

Moreover, in order to explain and analyse the several frameworks which form and define the organisation, both academics and practitioners have embraced the McKinsey “7-s” model (1980), that aligns strategy, structure, system -the hard S’s- and style, skill, staff and shared value - the soft S’s -, because it is well-recognised that purposeful, efficient organisational action can not be taken if these factors are not aligned. All these components are part of the organisation and are all connected in order to make live the system.

This paper will focus on recent studies about “structure”, component, which forms and make succeed an organisation. Complexity theories argue that structures become very important and have to be well-known by organisations because they are constantly being transformed. Indeed, “Complex adaptive systems are neither homogeneous nor chaotic; they have structure, embodied in the patterns of interactions between the components” (Cilliers - 1998). Some of these structures can be stable and long-lived, whilst others can be volatile and ephemeral. The structure is highly decided and implanted by the top management. Moreover, this structure can be part of the strategy of an organisation and involve all the people and actors of this system. The decision of such or such structure is then a very important choice because it will be source of competitive advantage.

In order to better discuss these points, first a theoretical background of the studies will be presented. Secondly, an explanation of the method used will enable a better understanding of the goals and limits of the research. Then, a review of the past findings concerning the emergent structures of organisations will be provided. The network organisation will be defined, explaining the role of boundaries and hierarchies in the structure. Also, a critical approach of the new forms of structures will be exposed. Finally, directions for future research will be explored, concerning principally the designed structures.


Complexity theory has been a bright new star in the academic firmament for a while now. It is being pursued eagerly in a number of disciplines (Thrift - 1999), generally with a fair amount of hype. These theories have been inspired by biology and physics, where organisations are modelled on the principles of living systems. Indeed, complexity science constitutes “an emerging field of investigation into the behaviour of a wide range of systems in the natural and physical worlds and indeed in the silicon world inside computers” (Fuller et al’s 2001). Complexity also helped to understand the “evolution of the economies” (Kochugovindan et al’s - 1998).

This paper focuses on a specific topic concerning organisations, which are the emergent forms of structures of organisations as complex adaptive systems. There are many reasons for the choice of complexity theories to explain organisational structures.

In effect, the first article ever published in organisation science suggested that it is inappropriate for organisation studies to settle prematurely into a normal science mindset because organisations are enormously complex (Daft and Lewin - 1990). What they meant is that the behaviour of complex system is surprising and hard to predict. That is why the use of complexity theories can be appropriate. Also, “complex problems need a complex analysis” (Davenport, Prusak - 1997). Indeed, “the central task of a natural science is to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity” (Anderson - 1999). As Cohen and Stewart (1994) point out, normal sciences show how complex effects can be understood from simple rules; chaos theory demonstrates that simple laws can have complicated, unpredictable consequences; and complexity theory describes how complex causes can produce simple effects. The use of the complexity theories becomes an efficient way to understand the emergence of new structures.

The second reason is because the science of complexity proposes a new vision and a new way of thinking about organisations. Many organisations are in the midst of fundamental changes in organisational design and management practice. Facing with technological change, global competition and the emergence of a knowledge-based economy, ‘traditional’ companies have now to move away from monolithic and rigid organisational design which were geared for repetitive transactions and routine activities (Bahrami - 1992). Complexity theories will see these businesses not as closed and rigid but as new open systems (Anderson - 1999), which exchange resources with the environment and where boundaries and hierarchies are not clearly defined (Cilliers - 2000). This new way of seeing organisations becomes especially relevant when applied to the changes of organisational structures.


The review began with a search of the Electronic Journals database for all papers with the terms ‘complex adaptive systems’ and ‘complexity theory’ in order to well understand the subject. Then I added ‘structure’ and terms as ‘emergence’ and ‘self organisation’, which are the main characteristics of the structures. I limited my search to “Business Source Premier” and noticed that the most relevant articles came from management journals. However, the results were very disappointing, considering the few numbers of reliable findings. I included the review «Emergence» which provides some articles corresponding with the subject.

Because the main subject is essentially based on new emergent forms of structures through complex theories, it was important to limit the research on recent papers published within six years maximum. However, in order to understand the first definition of the theories concerning the structures of organisations, one article from 1980 explains the “birth” of the 7-s model. Two papers dated 1992 have been chosen because of their good explanations.

The literature review had to be precise because of the strong link that exists between the 7-S’s of the model. Indeed, according to Waterman et al’s (1980), there is a “interconnectedness of the variables - the idea is that it is difficult, perhaps impossible to make significant progress in one area without making progress in the others as well”. Because of this strong link, it was very difficult to find articles only based on structures. However, I focused my readings on this subject. Moreover, I limited the review to emergent structures, leaving designed structures aside.

Also, in order to better understand the term ‘structure’, I decided to expand my research with articles relating to the terms ‘networks’ as well as ‘boundaries’ and ‘hierarchies’. I also chose some articles with practical case studies for a better understanding of the subject.

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I defined the subject as the emergent forms of structures in Complex Adaptive Systems, including the network organisation and its components. The result is a funding of 28 articles, which link complexity theory and new organisational structures. Each paper has been classed by areas and gives a global approach of the topic.


“Since the open-systems view of organisations began to diffuse in the 1960’s, complexity has been a central construct in the vocabulary of organisation scientists” (Anderson - 1999), when organisations began to be seen as living systems confronted with a changing environment and ...

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