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What Is a Complex Adaptive System?

Osmand Vitez
Osmand Vitez

A complex adaptive system is one that has many different types of parts to it, with components that may interact or affect many other systems. Though a complex system may be considered a process that an individual does not understand, this is not true. A complex adaptive system generally defines a system with a large number of elements; the interactions of the elements affect several other systems within a business; and intervening stages exist between each stage and interaction in a process. An example of such a system would be the manufacturing process of a company that produces many types of goods. This complex system can affect a great many parts of a company.

There is generally no set number of elements that can make up a complex adaptive system, though some individuals may define a minimum amount. These elements or individual actions may stretch among several different types of departments in a company. For example, the production department in a business has a complex system that affects receiving, production, accounting, and sales among others. Each activity within these departments can be a set of activities that makes up at least one or more complex adaptive systems. Many individuals often have involvement in order to complete individual tasks in the system.

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Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Relationships within a complex adaptive system may be nonlinear, which means one small change can have great effects on the overall system. On some cases, a company may make a small change to the system without considering all intended and unintended consequences. The result is a large change or effect imposed on the complex system that may not be for the better. Owners and managers are typically those individuals responsible for managing the change associated with decisions regarding the complex system. Unintended consequences can have significant detrimental effects on a company’s business processes.

Feedback gained from a complex adaptive system may not relate to a single department or environment. The result is information gleaned from the system that pertains to more than one department of activity within the process. In some cases, this can make correcting activities a bit difficult as there is no simple fix to a problem in the system. Other times, the feedback gleaned may not actually relate to the initial problem for which information was desired in the first place. This continues the process of a complex adaptive system and its difficulty in assigning borders.

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