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The environment as a multi-dimensional system: Taking off your rose coloured glasses The environment as a multi-dimensional system: Taking off your rose coloured glasses
by Murray Hunter
2012-07-11 10:00:10
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'Cos everything is beautiful when you're lookin through Rose colored glasses.
Everything seems amazin when you see the view in Rose colored glasses. Take 'em off’.
Rose Coloured Glasses Lyrics -Kelly Rowland

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us”[1]. These were the words of Charles Darwin in the last paragraph of his book The origin of Species, giving us a perspective of his sense of wonderment about the complexity and interrelationships within the biological system of life and evolution.

The Pudong area of Shanghai where the World Financial centre and other spectacular buildings reside on the East-side of the Huangpu River has transformed from what was little more than farmland and countryside before 1990. The long gone farmers have been replaced with office workers and residents who from their high-rise apartments can look across the river at the waterside historical Bund area of Shanghai where the British, Americans, French, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Belgium, Japanese, and Russians all constructed buildings to signify their presence in a past era of hegemony and detente.   

The above scenes of a tangled bank and Shanghai reminds us of the complexity and change we live within, layered upon the past, creating the base for the future, in some interconnected way that Darwin contemplated. Change is continuous. Both the Nazi German and Imperial Japanese empires were completely ravished during the Second World War, just like the Roman Empire centuries before, only to regenerate into new forms of society and economy in ways that could have never been foreseen at the time. Likewise Australia has transformed from a predominately white Anglo-Saxon to a rich multicultural society, the demographics of Britain are now vastly different from a century ago, and China is re-emerging and India emerging to take dominant positions in the world economy where today completely different sets of social values exist from what was a generation before. History always connects to the present and future but rarely how we envisage.

Traditional approaches to management have been mechanistic, grounded in the belief that one is in control within an environment that can be manipulated through a firm forming objectives, strategies, and actions through organizations. In addition strategic planning has viewed the environment in a very structured way, for example a situational audit and SWOT analysis[2] and it wasn’t until Porter developed the competitive forces model that the environment became the centre of strategy[3]. These kinetic metaphors portray an organization as one embedded with a belief that it has an internal locus of control with the ability to manipulate forces within the environment. The drive towards precision, certainty and having the right answers is not just embedded within our Newtonian paradigm organizations (taking a quantum metaphor), it is embedded within the expectations of society and our educational system.

Thinkers and scientists like Galileo, Newton, and Descartes can be considered to have laid the foundations of much of our current management theory. Science very much shaped the way we thought of the world in the 20th Century, providing metaphors and instruments to help us see and control events within the environment. Since the end of the European renaissance the metaphor of science has been that of the machine with the universe being described as ‘grand clockwork’ where the planets spin around the sun in a predictable fashion, described by the precision of mathematics. Science reduced everything to the smallest part in the belief that if one understood the parts one would understand the whole system. This thinking prevails in our views of management where organizational charts, job description, policies, strategies, budgets, and operational plans are utilized as a means to control of the organization and environment like a machine.

This has been adequate where a stable equilibrium exists, but this itself is only a myth. Stable equilibrium or mechanistic based theories have been found drastically wanting and there is a need for a means to provide a more thorough explanation of the workings and interrelationships between the environment and organizations. Developing and implementing strategy which creates change in the environment is undertaken under uncertainty where positive results for any organization are only probabilities. There are many factors involved, some which a firm can control, some which a firm cannot control, and some where a firm may have some influence over.  

Seeing the environment as a living biological entity or universe may be more suitable for understanding the dynamics involved. Within these analogies a paradigm shift can widen the view of the environment. For example a firm’s actions can be analogous to a wave which has precise effects to which precise results cannot be anticipated, although the general direction and affects in all probability can be anticipated with about the accuracy of predicting the weather[4].    

A biological systems or quantum approach views the environment as a group of interrelating entities – election, atom, molecule, crystal, or cell, virus, plant, animal, man, family, tribe, community, state, etc., where each exerts some form of behaviour influencing the others within some form of relationship. In addition these paradigms show the transformation from homogeneity to diversity and sparseness, the basic path of our evolution. This could be biological through natural selection, quantum through the emergence of galaxies, comets, and planets in the cosmos, social through the development of human society, or economic through the development of competitive fields and markets[5]. Systems approaches have no value laden assumptions so widen the options for strategic action choices. In contrast, contemporary management theories are phenomenologically based and prescriptive in their approaches. They ignore an open environment and offer value laden in potential solutions.

On the contrary the general systems and related theories assume an open environment. An open environment is where each component is bound to the others through exchange, dependency, and interrelationship, though this may not be visible. This can be better understood through the systems paradigms rather than a phenomenological approach. Phenomenological approaches are value and goal based assuming product and markets and market expansion, growth, and innovation.  Phenomenological approaches fail to explain all situations and contexts.  

Systems perspectives may give a general picture of an environment with some cost of close detail. The general assumption behind any systems perspective is that we cannot understand the environment through looking at the composition, we can only understand by seeing what the elements can do together[6]. This new thinking originates from research about complex adaptive systems by people like Murray Gell-Mann, Phillip Anderson, Kenneth Arrow, and IIya Prigogine in the disciples of physics, biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, and computer science. 

Observation and interaction within the environment using our current paradigms still cannot tell us whether the economic disasters of late are cyclic or part of some fundamental flaw in the system itself. Our level of knowledge about the ‘cause and effect’ within the environment still has a long way to go[7]. Thus our machine-like management and strategy paradigms like reengineering, downsizing, balanced score card, and lean production have more often than not failed to achieve what was expected.

Conversely, the more the environment is looked upon as a system, the greater the likelihood that we begin to understand complexity and the more we realize what we don’t know and learn to work with this. Understanding we don’t know can be a humbling experience, a good basis for learning. Although we surround ourselves with information, we actually make most decisions with deficient information, requiring the utilization of intuition. In contrast believing that we do know can turn our disposition into an arrogant one based on misguided overconfidence. Secondly we begin to see the dialectic existence of the environment. Reality is manifested as a product of our conception that modifies the environment. The environment at the same time is the source of our perceptions and thus influences our conception of products based on our view of reality. This is a continuous circular relationship. The nexus between our inner self and outside environment provides a linkage for interpretation – the true reality for the firm.

On casually viewing the world we can see it as complex and chaotic, especially when we have little or no focus on what to look for. This situation often brings feelings of anxiety to people. Our cognitive system is both hardwired and inference through the schema we develop to assist us refer to a narrow area of content within the environment[8]. We categorize elements within the environment through the process of patterning which simplifies complexity.  We categorize through the process of patterning which simplifies the complexities of the environment.

Different animal species interact with the environment based on different sets of patterned classifications. For example a girl and her little dog standing under a tree in the vicinity of a lamppost would different sets of classifications. For the girl, there are four different categories, Human (herself), animal (the dog), plant (the tree), and an artefact (the lamppost). However the dog will most likely see three categories, animal (itself), human (the girl), and artefact (the tree and the lamppost). The dog would not see any difference between the tree and the lamp-post. If there was a tiger from the wild nearby; it would see both the girl and dog as potential prey[9]. Thus our cognitive system enables us to see the world through categorizations where gaps are filled through our imagination based upon our prior knowledge. Anything we cannot categorize is either missed or becomes a source of fear and anxiety.

Our cultural environment becomes the blueprint for the way we construct the environment in a way that simplifies and reduces our uncertainty. However this channelling severely limits our possibilities due to our attention to a limited set of stimuli from the environment imposed by our self created boundaries[10].

Back to Kelly Rowland’s lyrics at the beginning of this article. Seeing things with rose coloured glasses signals undue optimism, a delusion, a bias a person may have. L. Frank Baum’s character Dorothy in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz asked the guardian at the gates why everyone has to wear green glasses in the Emerald City. The guardian replied so everything in the Emerald city would look green, so people would think it really is an Emerald City[11]. Uchasaran et. al. Postulated that the ability to manipulate or change patterns (which are like lenses or glasses we look through), gives the person the ability to look at perceived information in different ways[12]. Patterns thus guide our approaches to reasoning, decision making and problem solving that and are affected by bias, delusion, distortion, heuristics, and socio-cultural aspects that influence the structure of our schemata.  

Taking off the glasses metaphorically opens up the possibility that there is no best way of inventing something, innovating, managing, crafting strategy, and thus management cannot truthfully be called a science, although many scientific principles can be used in particular tasks and situations.

The usefulness of any paradigm should be judged by the types of insights into a situation it may provide. Management has often worked with the fallacy that one theory can explain everything which often leads to gross misinterpretations. For example in physics there has been a quest to isolate every particle which misses the interconnections with other particles that provide them with a definable existence[13]. Without looking at the interaction between say a neutron and an electron in the form of an atom, each individual particle has only an abstract existence, missing meaning. This can be applied in the business environment. The Coca Cola Company’s launch of New Coke in 1985 passed all focus group taste tests against Classic Coke and Pepsi with flying colours, but research data didn’t indicate and firm executives failed to realize the strong emotional attachment consumers had to the original product form, leading to one of the biggest new product launch disasters in modern marketing history[14]. Although New Coke was shown up by one channel of enquiry, the taste test to be a superior product, taste tests didn’t show the importance of the product’s iconic symbolism with consumers. Changing the Coke recipe to many consumers was like changing the US flag.

Systems, complexity and chaos theories can still be considered as a paradigm in progress within the field of management. Consequently, it cannot be expected to be a complete prescriptive and instrumental metaphor with explanatory algorithms which provide any full explanations of the environment[15] [16]. However, seeing the environment as a multidimensional system, free of paradigm patterning is the best way for contemporary management to see the changing opportunity-scape.





[1] Darwin, C. (1859). The Origin of Species by means of natural selection on the preservation of favoured species in the struggle for life, London, John Murray.

[2] Macmillan, H. & Tampoe, M. (2000). Strategic planning: Process, Content and Implementation, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[3] Porter, M. E. (1985). Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance, New York, Free Press.

[4] For example, a computer program can predict the precise output of a wave across the sea, but cannot take into account the numerous situational factors that influence the exact course. There are no algorithms powerful and complex enough to do this. We can only predict through heuristics.  

[5] Smoot, G. & Davidson, K. (1993). Wrinkles in Time, New York, Avon.

[6] Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (1995). What is Life? , New York, Simon & Schuster, P. 22.   

[7] King, S. D. (2010). Losing Control: The Emerging threats to western prosperity, New haven, Yale University Press.

[8] Von Aufschnaiter, C. & Aufschnaiter, S. (2003). Theoretical framework and empirical evidence of students’ cognitive processes in three dimensions of content, complexity, and time, Journal of Research in Science of Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 7, pp. 616-648.

[9] Boyer, P. (2001). The evolutionary Foundations of Religious Belief, New York, basic Books, pp. 114-115.

[10] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper Perennial, P. 81.

[11] Baum, L. F. (1999). The Wonderful World of Oz (republished), Lawrence, University of Kansas Press.

[12] Ucbasaran, D., Westhead, P. and Wright, M. (2004). Human capital based determinants of opportunity identification, In: Bygrave, W., Brush, D et. al (Eds.), Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research, Wellesley, MA, Babson College, pp. 430-444.

[13] Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life, New York, Doubleday, P. 80.

[14] Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, New York, Little brown and Company.

[15] Broekstra, G. (1994). Problems of Chaotic Simplicity: Weaver revisited, In: Trappl, R. (Ed.). Cybernetics and System Research, Singapore, World Scientific, pp. 1099-1106.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-07-11 14:07:50
And so we are back to Kant's conundrum. He showed us the limits of reason and rationality and postulated that we perceive reality through the categories of the understanding, but he was not so arrogant as present day scientists who wish to substitute science to metaphysics. To the question, what would reality be like if we took our lenses off (i.e., the categories of the understanding) he answered that he did not know, that was the neumenon beyond the categories of the understanding, as a philosopher he could only describe the phenomenon via reason. Indeed, it is not nature that is doing us in, it is our hubris.

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