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Anatomy of Agile Enterprise

Janne J. Korhonen

Taming the Chaos Is a Spiritual Deed

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Work is Organized as a Holarchy of Viable Systems

In his excellent book "Making Work Systems Better", Luc Hoebeke (1994) develops a work systems framework that provides an alternative to monolithic, hierarchic models of organizations. Arguing that the 'span of relations' constraints the size of natural work systems to three process levels, he identifies four recursively-linked domains, each with its own language, interests and other emergent characteristics. Each domain constitutes a viable system (Beer, 1972) that holarchically contains and is contained in a viable system. The higher domain is not managing or controlling the lower one, but rather creating conditions for its viability.

Figure 1. The causal texture of the environment (Emery and Trist, 1965), the respective work system domain (Hoebeke, 1994), and sense-making lens (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003).

The first recursion level is the added-value domain that consists of activities ranging from stratum I to stratum III (in terms of Jaques's (1998) Requisite Organization), encompassing a time span from 1 day to 2 years. The work systems in this domain are specialized in serving those customers, whose rather limited requirements match the capabilities of the system.

It can be argued that work at this level of complexity is requisite in the placid, randomized environments (Emery and Trist, 1965), in which organizations can exist adaptively as single and small units with no need to differentiate between tactics and strategy.

The second recursion level is the innovation domain, whose work system is in the process of consciously sensing and proactively creating the future. Its activities range from stratum III to stratum V, encompassing a time span from 1 to 10 years. Stratum III forms a hinge between the added-value domain and the innovation domain, as the relations between two domains need an overlapping set of common activities.

This level of complexity appears to be required in the placid, clustered environments (Emery and Trist, 1965), in which the need arises to distinguish strategy from tactics. Organizations grow in size, becoming multiple and tending towards centralized control and coordination.

The third recursion level is the value systems domain that is "involved in the permanent creation of the elements of a new culture by creating new languages and new descriptions and prescriptions about the world through a permanent debate between carriers of different world views, traditions and cultures." It consists of activities ranging from stratum V (again as the hinging level) to stratum VII, encompassing a time span from 5 to 50 years.

Following the earlier analogy, the work system at this level of complexity would face the disturbed-reactive environment (Emery and Trist, 1965), in which there is more than one system of the same kind and stability requires "a certain coming-to-terms between competitors". In this self-similar system-of-systems setting (Boardman and Sauser, 2006), the independence of change in constituent systems adds significantly to the complexity of the interactions and calls for explicit recognition of evolution of systems, which in turn encourages more frequent changes (Fisher 2006).

The fourth domain is the spiritual domain with time span beyond 20 years. Somewhat paradoxically, the processes in this domain are strongly linked to individuals, but have a universal component. Another paradox lies in the fact that what people in the spiritual domain are actually doing cannot easily be differentiated from the activities at the first process level.

Correspondingly, the spiritual domain would pertain to the turbulent field (Emery and Trist, 1965), in which the dynamic properties arise not only from the interactions of the organizations but also from the field itself - the 'ground' is in motion. The complexity exceeds individual organizations' capacities for prediction and control; they cannot adapt to the turbulent environment through their direct interactions but must rely on commonly held values as the control mechanism in the field.

Cynefin: Making Sense of Increasing Complexity

The Cynefin framework (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003) is a phenomenological framework of sense-making, addressing how people perceive and make sense of situations in order to make decisions. It distinguishes five domains, of which four are discussed below: the ordered domains of "Known" (or "Simple") and "Knowable" (or "Complicated"), and the un-ordered domains "Complex" and "Chaos". The fifth domain of disorder has a distinct role as helping understand the conflict among different points of view. As such it is not considered herein.

In the "Known" domain, cause and effect relationships are generally linear, empirical in nature, and not open to dispute. Structured techniques and processes such as single-point forecasting, field manuals and operational procedures ensure repeatability and predictability. The decision model is to sense incoming data, categorize the data, and then respond in accordance with predetermined practice. The focus is on reliability and efficiency. This is arguably the paradigmatic mode of sense-making in the value-added domain.

In the "Knowable" domain, cause and effect relationships are separated over time and space in chains that may not be fully known or are understood only by a limited group of experts. This domain favors systems thinking and methods that seek to identify cause-effect relationships through the study of properties hypothetically associated with qualities, e.g. experiment, expert opinion, fact-finding, scenario planning. The decision model is to sense incoming data, analyze the data, and then respond in accordance with expert advice or interpretation of that analysis. The focus is on validity and effectiveness. Sense-making of this kind is characteristic to the innovation domain.

In the "Complex" domain, cause and effect relationships between interacting agents can be perceived as emergent patterns, but only in retrospect. Any attempts to categorize or analyze the retrospectively coherent patterns in a structured way are futile, as the underlying sources of the patterns cannot be readily inspected. The decision model is to create probes to elicit the patterns, then sense those patterns and respond by stabilizing the desirable patterns, while destabilizing the undesired ones. Creating a space that is conducive to desirable patterns requires multiple perspectives on the nature of the system. The methods, tools and techniques of the known and knowable domains render inadequate here. Narrative techniques are powerful, as they convey a large amount of knowledge or information in a very succinct way. The complex adaptive systems nature of the "Complex" lens appears applicable to the value systems domain.

In the "Chaos" domain, there are no perceivable cause and effect relationships. As the system is turbulent, there is no response time to investigate change. The potential for order is there, but only few can see it and have the courage to act thereupon. The decision model in this space is to act, quickly and decisively, to reduce the turbulence, sense the reaction to the intervention and respond accordingly. Taming the chaos appears to call for such symbol-system-transcending present-centered awareness that one might call spiritual, indeed.


  • Beer, S. (1972). Brain of the Firm. Penguin Press, London.
  • Boardman, J. and Sauser, B. (2006). System of systems - the meaning of of. 2006 IEEE/SMC International Conference on System of Systems Engineering. pp. 118-123.
  • Emery, F.E., and Trist, E.L. (1965). "The causal texture of organisational environments", Human Relations, 18, pp. 21-32.
  • Fisher, D.A. (2006). An Emergent Perspective on Interoperation in Systems of Systems. Technical report. Carnegie Mellon University, Software Engineering Institute.
  • Hoebeke, L. (1994). Making Work Systems Better: A Practitioner's Reflections. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Jaques, E. (1998). Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, Revised second ed. Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, Baltimore, MD.
  • Kurtz, C.F. and Snowden, D.J. (2003). "The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world", IBM Systems Journal, 42(3), pp. 462-483.

Janne J. Korhonen provides insights into how information technology can be applied strategically to catalyze organizational change and responsiveness. Drawing from both theory and practice, he discusses agile enterprise and its governance.

Janne J. Korhonen

Janne J. Korhonen is an independent business and IT consultant,specializing in enterprise architecture, business process management,service-oriented architecture and pertinent governance models. He has over ten years of experience as an architect and consultant in a variety of extensive and mission-critical IT projects. With strong theoretical underpinnings, his consulting encompasses systemic co-development of business, organization and information technology.

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