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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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2.3.7 Dealing with complexity

What all of this means is that the world of organisations is very complex, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a coherent picture at any one time of what is happening within and externally to the organisation. Karl Weick, an American psychologist, sees organisations as sense-making systems that socially construct their realities by making sense of what is going on both within and outside the organisation. Members explore issues and hold conversations that allow them to create a ‘reality’ that they can understand. The following extract sets out some of Weick’s key ideas.

Sense making is rolling hindsight. It is a continual weaving of sense from beliefs, from implicit assumptions, from tales from the past, from unspoken premises for decision and action, and from ideas about what will happen as a result of what can be done. Once put into words it is constrained and framed by those same words because they are only approximately what they refer to. Often words have multiple meanings, so all the time people are working with puns. Further, words are inclined to convey discrete categories: they are not equal to depicting the unbroken, complex flow of life in organizations.

The sense that is made is shaped also by selective perception, that is, by noticing some things and not others. Commitments that have been made then have to be justified retrospectively. There is a constant process of putting together reasoned arguments and arguing about them, most obviously in meetings which have a value as sense making occasions. However, the sense that is made has its limits. People with time to spend on a problem at a meeting make sense of it in away most understandable to themselves, so others become less able to follow what is afoot. Showing up at meetings therefore produces a situation that is manageable only by those who have been showing up.

The whole sense making process gives ostensible orderliness to what is going on, and has gone on. The development of a ‘generic sense making’, within which individuals differ yet sufficiently concur, maintains a sense of organization …

Whatever the form of organization, it will have to work with ambiguous, uncertain, equivocal and changing information. Despite their facade of numbers and objectivity and accountability, organizations and those who manage them wade amidst guesswork, subjectivity and arbitrariness. Weick feels that language could better reflect this constant ambiguous flux by making more use of verbs and less of nouns. Indeed, he urges people to ‘stamp out nouns’: to think of managing rather than management, of organizing rather than organization …

He offers managers and others in organizations ten further ‘pieces of advice’:

  1. Don’t panic in the face of disorder. Some degree of disorder is necessary so that disorderly, ambiguous information can be taken in and coped with, rather than tidily screened out.
  2. You never do one thing all at once. Whatever you do has many ramifications, not just the one you have in mind. And whilst some consequences happen right away, others show up indirectly and much later.
  3. Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction. When someone asks ‘What shall I do?’ and is told ‘I don't know, just do something’, that is probably good advice. Since sense is made of events retrospectively, an action, any action, provides something to make sense of. Inaction is more senseless.
  4. The most important decisions are often the least apparent. Decisions about what is to be retained in files, in databases, in memories indeed, provide the basis for future action. Such decisions may not be conspicuous, yet they sustain the past from which the future is begun.
  5. There is no solution. As there are no simple answers, and rarely is anything right or wrong, learn to live with improvisation and just a tolerable level of reasonableness.
  6. Stamp out utility. Good adaptation now rules out some options for the future. Concentrating overmuch on utility now can rule out sources of future utility. Resources and choices are used up. Better to retain some noise and variability in the system, even at a cost to present efficiency, so that fresh future repertoires of action may be opened up.
  7. The map is the territory. When the managers’ map of what causes what, drawn from past experience, is superimposed on the future, it becomes for them the territory that it maps. Simplification though it is, such a map has been worked over more than any other product has, and is as good a guide as can be had.
  8. Rechart the organizational chart. Do not be boxed in by its conventional form. See things as they work out and people as they are to you. See the chart in the way that it functions. For example, in the box on the chart for chairman write ‘hesitancy’, in the box for general manager write ‘assertiveness’, and so on, in the way people come over to you.
  9. Visualize organizations as evolutionary systems. See what is evolving, and what you can and should change. Likewise, recognize what is not, and you cannot.
  10. Complicate yourself! Consider different causes, other solutions, new situations, more complex alternatives, and take pleasure in the process of doing so.
(Source: Pugh and Hickman, 2007, pp. 124–9)

This means that organisations are complex dynamic systems that are difficult to describe except via snapshots of their reality at particular moments in time. ‘The organisation is in a continuous state of becoming’ (Zeitz, 1980, pp. 72–88).

Stop and reflect

To what extent do Weick’s ideas assist you in understanding the reality of your organisational world?

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Activity 3 The organisational context

Throughout section 2 you were asked at various points to consider certain questions and ideas you read about. You may like to use your Learning Journal as you look back through the text in order to answer the following questions:

  • Max Weber thought that bureaucracies were the most efficient and rational forms of organisation, but today the word ‘bureaucratic’ has negative associations. Drawing together your thoughts on control, surveillance and organisational politics, how far would you say your organisation succeeds in efficiently coordinating its activities?
  • Managers today operate in challenging times. Do you think there may be greater organisational benefits to either:
    • a.a renewed emphasis on rational bureaucratic systems and processes or
    • b.taking on-board the advice offered by Karl Weick about how to cope with complexity.
    Are these two approaches reconcilable?


In this section, you considered what it is that makes an organisation an organisation, and explored the key management issue of how to coordinate the many activities that together deliver organisational objectives. As the text stated:

All organisations are seeking to resolve a set of common problems: how to divide up the work and, at the same time, to integrate it; and how to create a sense of identity.

You may have found it challenging to identify control mechanisms in your organisation, or to think about organisational politics. In bureaucracies, the hierarchy of authority and power is clear, and control mechanisms always transparent; in other forms of organisation they may be more hidden. Whatever form organisations take, the issues of power and control versus autonomy are always present, since they are inevitably linked to the need to manage complexity.

Activity 4 Organisational and national culture

Organisational culture and intra-cultural working environments are as important a part of organisational life and management as how an organisation is structured. In fact, structure and culture can be seen as inextricably linked to one another when thinking about how an organisation and its managers respond to problems and opportunities. National and regional or even global monocultures (Madsen, 1993) will influence management practices and organisational cultures, making skills in cross-cultural communication a high priority for organisations.

The next section helps you to make sense of the cultural context in which you work, manage others and are yourself managed. That is to say:

  • How does culture (organisational or otherwise) impact on management practices?

First, watch a short video of an advert by a multinational corporation, HSBC bank, which speaks to some of the national customs that could impact on how business is conducted in different regions of the world.

As you watch the following video clip, an advertisement from HSBC, think about your own experiences of different national or regional cultures:

  • How might the different examples of business practices work in your own organisation?
  • Some examples in the video are clearly related to leisure travel rather than business practices. How might these translate to customs you might want to consider in business relationships?

If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access this video here: YouTube link: HSBC Ad (YouTube, 2010) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Transcript of HSBC advertisement video

Some American management consultants recommend having meetings standing up to save time, which wouldn’t suit this Japanese chairman, who likes to take the time to contemplate what is being discussed.

It’s fine to get some shut eye in Thailand, but not like this: showing the soles of your feet is one of the rudest things you can do. And this hand gesture [raising an open palm] in parts of Greece would also be frowned upon.

At HSBC, we never underestimate the importance of local knowledge, particularly when it comes to your money. Because what we learn in one country, can directly benefit our customers in another.

HSBC – the world’s local bank.

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Although you may not have worked inter-culturally you will probably have experienced travel to another country or been in contact with people from other countries in your business and personal life. As the world becomes more interconnected, more and more organisations are faced with translating their business practices across a wider range of cultures, customs, laws, political systems and business practices.

Meanwhile, the cultural context of the organisation (as opposed to its geographic location) is just as strong a factor in how businesses are managed and how people perform their work. As you will discover in the next reading, culture is a powerful influence on organisational identity and influences the complexity of the management environment.

As you read the following section make notes on the following: you may like to use your Learning Journal to record your notes.

  1. Choose one of the frameworks discussed for example, Deal and Kennedy or Handy’s four types of organisational culture – and think about where your own organisation would fit. Note your thoughts about whether it is a good fit or perhaps you can see more than one cultural type or can identify where the framework itself is lacking.
  2. Choose either Hofstede or Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner’s framework and consider whether the dimensions they identify resonate with your own experiences. Note your thoughts about how helpful these frameworks are in alerting you to differences in cultures. How might these understandings help your practice of management?
  3. Reflect on how the use of these frameworks helps you think about organisations in new ways.