Harnessing complexity

May 18, 2000

The spread of an Internet hoax through a college campus, the delicate dance of nations engaged in arms control, the frenetic but efficient world of Wall Street trading -- all are examples of systems that are hard to control, in which outcomes are virtually impossible to predict. The very complexity of such systems makes it difficult for an individual player, whether a person, a business or an entire country, to know what actions to take -- so much depends on what the other participants do and how their strategies change over time. But two University of Michigan professors have devised an approach to "harnessing" complexity, turning it into a tool for desirable change.

In "Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier," published by The Free Press, Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen offer a practical method that managers and policy makers can use to analyze situations, generate useful questions and formulate new plans of action. Axelrod, one of the world's top experts on game theory and cooperation, and Cohen, a leading scholar of organizational learning, are pioneers in the field of complexity research, but their book is not an academic treatise on the subject. Written for lay readers, it is aimed at "those who want to improve the world, as well as marvel at it," and it assumes no previous background in complexity theory.

Drawing examples from business, epidemiology, information technology and other areas, the authors outline the Complex Adaptive Systems approach. A Complex Adaptive System is one in which many participants -- perhaps even many kinds of participants -- interact in intricate ways that continually reshape their collective future. In such systems, participants keep revising their strategies, trying to adapt to shifting circumstances. As they do, they constantly change the circumstances to which other participants are trying to adapt. Three key concepts lead to questions that can help identify productive courses of action in Complex Adaptive Systems. The concepts and the questions they generate are:"We set out to do something very challenging: write a book that would be genuinely useful for a broad audience, while not distorting the research," says Cohen. "We are very happy to be hearing from managers, policy makers and researchers that they are all finding the book valuable."
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: ROBERT AXELROD is professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan. He is author of "The Evolution of Cooperation" and a leading expert in game theory, artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, mathematical modeling, and complexity research. A MacArthur Prize fellow, he has lectured on harnessing complexity in hospitals, schools, and social groups.

MICHAEL D. COHEN is professor of information and public policy at the University of Michigan. He is the author (with James March) of "Leadership and Ambiguity" and had served as an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and a long-term consultant at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.


"Harnessing Complexity: Organization Implications of a Scientific Frontier"
Publication Date: May 12, 2000
The Free Press
Price: $26.00
ISBN: 0-684-86717-6

EDITORS: Review copy requests may be faxed to The Free Press publicity department at 212-632-4989.

University of Michigan
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