“Complex adaptive systems”

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 20/08/2017 13:45


Some socio-cultural systems thinkers have suggested that a system should be “adaptive, self-organising and resilient”.

This paper explores what these terms mean, and exposes (again) the difference between social entities and social systems.


Preface (repeat) 1

“Complex adaptive systems”. 3

Adaptive (evolutionary)?. 4

Self-organising?. 5

Resilient?. 6

Can an enterprise be adaptive, self-organising and resilient?. 6

A little more about discrete step evolution. 7



It is presumed here that you have read System stability and system change, and so understand the following terms.

System adaptation: a change to the state of a system, which changes the value of at least one variable.

System transformation: a change to the nature of a system, which changes the type of at least one variable or behavior.

Meta system: a system that defines a system or transforms it from one generation to the next.

And have read the final section of that paper on Complex Adaptive Systems.

“Complex adaptive systems”

People talk about social entities needing to be adaptive, self-organising and resilient. What do they mean?


The table below shows a classification of social “system” types used by some systems thinkers.

A so-called “complex adaptive system” is partly an ordered system and partly a chaotic one.

Social system type

The behaviour of actors

It is

Ordered system

is fully constrained to follow the given rules.

fully describable

Complex adaptive system,  or self-organising system

is constrained by some given rules,

but actors work flexibly outside those rules

partly describable

Chaotic system

is unconstrained; there is no system

not describable


An ordered system in which the behaviour of human actors is constrained to follow roles defined by the rules of the system, is described somewhere.

Enterprise architecture is much about the standardisation and integration of systemisation of orderly business roles and processes.


A chaotic system, in which the behaviour of human actors is unconstrained, cannot be described as a system

Though the way actors interact and behave might be susceptible to some kind of analysis, statistical or other.


In a so-called complex adaptive system, the system actors are allowed or encouraged to act as system architects.

The shapes and rules of operational structures and behaviours are continually changing.

Only a simple description - showing “core” roles and processes that are stable and repeatable – is possible.

The system shows those roles and processes, and hides what can change.


Adaptive (evolutionary)?

In this context, adaptive means modification of a system through what is called evolutionary change above.

A system that fits its environment well may last unchanged for years, decades or centuries.

But clearly, humans live in a rapidly changing social environment.

And a social entity may be empowered to change the roles and rules of a social system.

But to say the social system is adaptive is to confuse the social entity with the social system.

The actors in the social entity adapt the roles in the social system; the system does not change itself.


Human actors can play a role in a system and a role its meta system at the same time.

·         As system actors, they can perform processes in a social system.

·         As systems architects, they can observe, redesign and change how things are done on the fly.


This table classifies social entities according to what system actors are allowed to change.

Social entity type

Actors can change

system goals

Actors can change

processes and/or

organisation structure





A proper system; its structure and behaviour can be described as per general system theory




See below




Not a system; it cannot be described as a system, because all its properties are in flux


What about the “goal-driven social entity”?

It has actors and goals – you might be able to measure the achievement of the goals.

But its roles or rules can change continually, and so there is no describable system

Actors may work in an ad hoc way, may do nothing, may not co-operate or even undermine others’ efforts.

Actors may decide to outsource the achievement of the given goals to a different group of actors.


However, the classification above is naïve, since a social entity may well be a hybrid of types.

It may be partly ordered, partly goal-driven and partly chaotic.

In so-called “complex adaptive system”, only the ordered part is really a “systemthe rest is just actors doing things.



This is not a generally-required system property,

An oyster, a motor car, an ERP or CRM system is composed of parts that play their given roles.

These systems do not organise themselves, their organisation is changed by discrete step evolution from one generation to the next.

And the reorganisation happens in a meta system rather than in the system itself.


If customers, suppliers or employees ignore or change the roles or rules of a business system, this is disorganising rather than self-organising.

To abandon roles and rules is to abandon the notion of systematic behaviour; it undermines the notion that there is a system in any useful sense.

Hence, the term “systems thinking” is ill-fitting when applied to social entity with no stable roles or rules.


Is a golf club self-organising?

Its committee is a meta system that maintains the rules of the golf club.

One person can play a role in the meta system (as a committee member) and in the operational system (as a player).


Is an agile system development project a self-organising team?

The daily stand-up meeting (that sets or changes the roles and priorities of team members) is better separated from the development work itself.

One person can play a role as a manager in the meta system that plans work, and as a developer in the operational system.


Is an enterprise with an enterprise architecture team self-organising?

The enterprise architecture team is not involved in performing day-to-day business operations.

Enterprise architecture is better regarded as a meta system to the business systems it observes, envisages and plans.


The systems we observe usually appear resilient, since systems that are not resilient soon disappear from view.

But still, resilience is not a generally-required property of a system.

The fact that a system is short-lived doesn’t mean it is no good, or no use.

And what does resilient mean anyway?


Resilient can mean an object will return to shape after being pressed out of shape.

It could mean homeostatic, maintaining system state within a range fitting to survival.

But social entities do not have to be homeostatic; they can grow, shrink or change direction.


Resilient can mean a system will withstand or recover quickly from damage,

Disaster recovery resources and processes are supposed to restore the same system that failed, not change it.


Resilient is better interpreted here as meaning a business (a legal entity) can change in response to unpredictable events.

It can respond to unpredictable changes in its environment, customers, suppliers, market or government regulations.

A biological species proves resilient when individual organisms are replaced by somewhat different, better-adapted, organisms.

An enterprise proves resilient when individual business systems are replaced by somewhat different, better-adapted, business systems.

Can an enterprise be adaptive, self-organising and resilient?

EA is about systems that involve many different kinds of actor/component, rather than a homogeneous population of identical actors/components.

EA is about designing macro-level systems that act to achieve given goals.

EA is activity-centric rather than actor-centric.

EA is about formalised social systems rather than informal social entities.


All enterprises are adaptive (evolving), self-organising and resilient to a degree.

Their flexibility is mostly down to the informal behaviour of human as individuals and in groups.

Obviously, you can employ capable, self-aware humans, give them some goals and free reign to act as they see fit.

That is the most flexible system you can devise, but it barely counts as a “system”.


Business systems are formalised social systems with defined roles and rules.

Defining and the required roles and rules in the first place is difficult.

The challenge of testing and deploying formal business systems is substantial.


A business system realises the roles and rules set out in a system description.

Changing the roles and rules of a business system creates a different business system.

The systems share some goals and properties, but are different systems versions or generations.

Changing a business system from one generation to the next can be as challenging as building it.

And designing systems so that they can be changed (within designed bounds) is even more challenging.

A little more about discrete step evolution

A biological species or social entity evolves when individual members are replaced by somewhat different, better-adapted, members.

Members who join a social entity tend to be different from their predecessors

Changes to group members that make a social entity better adapted to its environment will be encouraged by the pressures of natural selection.

This leads to the evolution of new, different, social entities.

This kind of evolution is not continuous, it happens in discrete steps, as new members join and older members leave.


New business systems tend to be different from their predecessors.

Changes to business systems that make an enterprise better adapted to its environment will be encouraged by the pressures of natural selection.

This leads to the evolution of new, different, enterprises.

This kind of evolution is not continuous, it happens in discrete steps, as new business systems are deployed and older ones are decommissioned.


Evolution can be seen as a meta system that replaces individuals by different individuals (better suited to their environment), and so changes a social entity or species.

Enterprise architecture can be seen as a meta system that replaces business systems by different systems (better suited to their environment), and so changes an enterprise.

Note that IBM as a system today is different from IBM as a system yesterday.

The named entity has adapted to circumstances by replacing and radically changing the business systems it uses (and sells).



Related topics

Goals, Purposes and Choice

Adaptation and Evolution - Analysis for further exploration of system change.





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