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In a surprisingly good Dimbleby lecture, Prince Charles gave an excellent description of complex adaptable systems with a well informed tour of the relevance to action and with warnings about the need to understand the impact of our actions in seeking constant growth.

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The implications of complex adaptive systems have been making steady inroads into thinking about society and in particular organisations and how we run them. But they have a special relevance when it comes to affecting culture change in organisations. For example they can help us make better sense of demands for changes in culture of various kinds.

On the day following the Prince’s talk, the UK chancellor Alistair Darling called for a “change of culture in the City” with a shift from short term profit to rewarding long term stability. But simply calling for a culture change is no more than wishful thinking. If you want a bee hive to change in some way—a typical example from nature of a complex adaptive system–you have to start getting the individual bees to behave differently not by giving them a lecture.

HR professionals often face the challenge of advising their organisations on sustaining culture change and I suggest that complex adaptive systems offer a useful framework for addressing the issue. This blog author recently gave a talk to managers at the Open University on the subject of sustaining culture change for instance, and introduced the idea of complex adaptive systems and some of the implications. The 40 or so managers were asked what issue concerned them most about the challenge of culture change in the OU. Five separate tables of managers independently selected blocks to culture change as the most important issue that concerned them.

Louis Gerstner the executive who rescued IBM from near oblivion, admitted that previously he saw culture was one among several important elements producing success. But while at IBM he came to see “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it IS the game.”

In the game of successful culture change, complex adaptive systems and the thinking that goes with them may prove to be a game changer.

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