Is culture an Emergant Phenomena of a complex adaptive system?

It's Lit Review time and I need to do a little philosophical pondering, so where better to do it than in my research blog! WARNING: You might want to get a coffee before reading this one.


Last year while reading all about Complex Adaptive Systems theory (CAS), I came across the idea that the concept of culture itself is, in fact, an emergent phenomenon. Bennet and Bennet's book, "Organizational Survival in the New World"

It made sense to me. After all, it seems to meet all the requirements of an emergent phenomena:

  • It is non-linear in nature,
  • It is not predictable from an analysis of the system's individual parts,
  • And while not predictable, it recurs frequently when a certain level of complexity is achieved in the host system.

Gabby Lakomski constantly reminded us that definitions are crucial at this level. When you play around with definitions at the philosophical level, then by the time you get to the application level, your error is multiplied one thousand times and you are burning Jews because, after all, they aren't actually human are they? Definitions should be carefully thought through and constantly revised from first principles as they are applied in different ways to ensure they still hold water.

Culture itself has certainly been through that process. Tyler declared it as an assortment of things way back in 1871 (quoted in Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild, 1996, p.353). It has taken nearly 150 years to get to where we now see it as a shared and embodied cognitive process.

So, here is the question? When I thought "Culture" met the criteria of an emergent phenomena, what definition of culture was I applying?

The old anthropological definition certainly fits. If culture is a grab bag of capabilities and habits acquired by man from society, then the simple inspiration, rationalision and expression of these things would make them unpredictible enough to qualify and the law of averages might take care of the emergence part.

The Problem

This view of culture has been proven inadequate for the task; in fact quite misleading. It's only redeeming quality - it seems to me - is that of its external nature that allows an anthropologist to discard it and focus on researching human behaviour in seeming disconnectedness to the environmental affects of society.

I have revisited Bennet's book again and I must admit he puts forward a compelling argument. It goes like this:

  • Workers go about their jobs by modifying their perceptions and behaviours to solve problems
  • The collaborative nature of the workplace means that the adjustments affect fellow workers who are participating in the same adaptive process
  • These adjustments continue until they "settle down" and normalize until another external change requires them to re-adjust
  • Each worker can behave differently, but all eventually lie within the organizations accepted norms
  • A set of beliefs, feelings, expectations and norms develops that provides comfort and stability and becomes self sustaining
  • This resulting atmosphere - much of it tacitly acknowledged - is what constitutes the organisations culture.


Neat idea! To quote the book "Emergence is not random, rather it is the result of multiple interactions that settle down to internal coherance and patterns."

OK, So then:

  • I agree that the process above does seem to take place in the workplaces that I have been a member.
  • I also tend to agree that this description of culture fits the description of an emergent behaviour.


  • Is this a correct description of Culture?
  • I think the key lies in the last 2 sentences of the description:

    "As this atmosphere is created, with its behaviour patterns and unstated assumptions, the organization's culture is created. This culture is a global property of organizations and because it emerges out of the interactions, it cannot be traced back to any single cause or individual."

  • Culture here is seen as something external from the individuals who apparently created it. An us and them thing is being created. In the very next line Bennet states that new members of the organization can either adapt or leave.
  • The author has moved into the definition of "culture as essence". The combative comment is evidence of that as so many others who use the "culture as essence" and "culture as difference" tend to do.

Reading on through the next section "Steps to creating an action culture" just continues to reinforce this view. Workers should do this and should behave this way, and the biggest worry of all:

Creating an action culture begins at the top of the organization...

Changing culture from the top down affects the corporate culture through policy - whether management mean it or not. Bennet's warning that "cultural characteristics cannot be created through policy, rules, or managerial control" is a good one, however rather than guiding management to see culture as embodied process and seek to meet individual's needs, the author suggests simply building trust (which they see as critical because their definition of culture tells them there is a gulf to span) and minimizing negative cultural effects by having all managers and knowledge workers pattern themselves in the desired way. Within a very short time of the management leaving of changing, I predict a culture changed in this way will spring back like a giant rubber band.

More problems:

  • There is a distinct gap between managers & knowledge workers and the "workforce"
  • These management staff are simply expected to obey the leadership. No consideration is given that they themselves are part of the culture and I assume this would be done by policy and rules which have already been acknowledged not to work?
  • Finally, the reader is prompted to simply put their own trust in the hands of the ICAS model and the resultant culture will emerge. It may well emerge, however


It seems to me after this train of thought that the problem isn't that culture is emergent. My issue seems to lie in the use of the emergence as an emergent entity that is seen to take on a life of it's own.

Hofstede made similar mistakes with his version of culture, using generalities that work quite effectively at the National level, but break down when applied to groups of any smaller size than that and constitute an ecological fallacy when applied to the individual.

It is this last point that is the clincher. The use of Complex Adaptive Theory to define organisational behaviour becomes corrupt the instant it is applied to anyting smaller than a nation-state. Whether it approaches reality on one or even many points, it doesn't on the most important one which is the point where the rubber meets the road.

Culture as emergent phenomenon is an unworkable concept for the determination of general principles regarding the implementation of organisational culture change.

Implications for the Literature Review

So, is it all bad for my thesis? Not necessarily so.

The steps to creating culture change do include some good points:

  • An audit of the internal and external environments is part of any good knowledge audit
  • modelling good behaviour is certainly critical to engendering a culture change
  • using planning for learning and setting knowledge space boundaries for workers and groups can overcome barriers to creativity and knowledge sharing
  • double-loop learning is integral for long-term change but must be conducted by the business units with the support and encouragement of senior management. As the name implies, it is a type of learning and 2 or 3 guys at the top of the tree cannot "learn" on behalf of the entire organisation and hope the new behaviours filter down by example.
  • Finally, when encouraging individuals in the group to change, their emotions, felt needs, personal goals and risks must be considered. This is the step that is most correct for engendering change.

However, I'm afraid the evidence to support using Culture as an Emergent Phenomena to link CAS Theory to the use of Wiki's in SMEs is insufficiently robust for me.

On the other hand, I believe the use of culture as cognitive process still holds some hope if CAS theory is not called upon to support it.


  • Bennet, A & Bennet, D 2003, Organizational survival in the new world : the intelligent complex adaptive system, Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, MA.
  • Hutchins, E, 1996, Cognition in the Wild, Bradford Book.
  • Lakomski, G, 2005, Managing without Leadership - Towards a Theory of Organizational Functioning, Elsevier, Oxford.

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