What I Learned of Organizations : Reflections Pt 10

I have been lucky enough, or inspired enough, or periodically unsettled enough to have worked in five organizations during their times of innovative inspiration, and two organizations as they wound down or consolidated. As much as any research, those experiences shaped my thoughts and sometimes actions about the inevitability of growth, collapse, novelty and renewal.

I learned an important organizational need during this time. Specifically, the more integrative demand required by studies of ecosystems, economies and societies needs integrative support that sees fundamentals in both theory and application. Early on that came from grants and enthusiasm provided by Evan Armstrong, an insightful leader in Canada’s Dept of the Environment- a guy who was not a scientist at all, but was a manager and was, of all things, Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance.

Integrative organizations then became the supporters of such work, as they began to emerge as a consequence of integrative methods begun during WW II. For me, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis provided an astonishing place, in its early years around 1972, to work with some of the best in different fields- George Dantzig in optimization, Howard Raiffa in decision theory, Tjalling Koopmans in economics, Mike Fiering in water/stochastic modeling, and Alex Basykin in mathematics. We all learned from each other as we tested the usefulness of novel methods for novel systems. Bill Clark and Dixon Jones were my partners in this and each has made huge contributions to related fields.

That experience became the opportunity for us to identify and then test the value of methods developed in other fields- particularly economics, operation research and decision theory. Our conclusions were presented in Clark et al. (1979). It was a huge step in understanding the strengths and limitations of familiar methods and of new methods from other fields. That effort and the experience at IIASA shaped our research and education activities for the next decade at least.

Later, the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics became the center of integrative work that much influenced me. Carl Folke and Karl-Goran Maler were the brilliant minds and designers of this remarkable institute. It became a truly integrative center for studies of excellence. And the Santa Fe Institute has had the same innovative, integrative role in the development of Complexity Theory.

That leads me to jump a bit to the future. The large influences of wonderful, integrative organizations like IIASA, Beijer and SFI, can come and go. They often become burdened by their success and rarely are able to maintain the same liveliness and novelty needed over time. Instead, the novelty develops in one place and then typically shifts elsewhere, expanding, extending, testing and deepening the work as it moves. The intellectual area or topic becomes the evolving entity, but often not the founding organization itself.

Still, IIASA, Beijer and SFI live on, and with the natural process of acquiring new leadership, they each can move to new phases of innovation. That is more likely if the design of the organization has a modest capital of structures bound up in it. If that is true, then the Beijer Institute, the least encumbered of these centers, promises a new phase of novel work. All the more so since I have just learned that the new Director chosen by a committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is Carl Folke, a singular and wise man of great accomplishments!

For the same reason, the Internet perhaps also provides an alternative means to develop integrative and adaptive organizations at low cost. They could, perhaps, offer a more sustainable organizational partner to encourage novel, integrative research among groups. That is what led us to form the Resilience Alliance and the Internet journal Ecology and Society.

The Resilience Alliance is formed by about 15 groups from around the world, people who all share the same enthusiasms and flexible desires for novel and relevant work. They each provide a modest annual membership fee to publish the journal and maintain the organization. Committed people, and grants do the rest. Integrative workshops interspersed with integrative research, integrative educational material and programs and novel modes of communication provide a foundation for both fundamental integrative science and policy research.

The Resilience Alliance has a very simple structure. It is our entry to the set of experiments needed to sustain innovation and excellence in a troubled world. There has been one very successful change in leadership when Brian Walker of Australia took over from me. He designed an essential and very significant phase of grounded testing of theory, and added new organizations and people. In the next couple of years he hopes for another shift in leadership and direction. Will the very busy folks involved find one person, or two, who can commit to that? We will see; I sure hope so.

Clark, William C., Dixon D. Jones and C.S. Holling 1979. Lessons for ecological policy design: A case study of ecosystems management. Ecological Modelling 7: 1 – 53.

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