Organizational complexity and designing in context

J.C. Burg, van, I.M.M.J. Reymen, A.G.L. Romme, V.A. Gilsing

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionAcademicpeer-review


This paper explores a basic question in organization design: how can and do designers deal with an evolving and partly unknown context? We draw on a comparative case study approach in which complexity theory is used as an explanatory scheme to explore issues of context, complexity and design. The case studies involve three universities in which support systems for business startups exploiting university inventions (so-called university spin-offs) are designed. The analysis of the three cases shows that sensitivity to initial conditions serves to explain the observed differences in design approach and results. Several characteristics of complexity are observed in the cases. Designers deal with these complex situations in three ways. First, analogous design evokes sensitivity towards differences between the situation at hand and an exemplar situation. Second, the hierarchical position and charisma of the leadership of the incubation unit provides designers with the power and space to utilize the existing hierarchy in order to design and implement solutions. Third, in all three cases the designer’s experience was critical in dealing with local and contextual issues. Thus, the design of university spin-off support shows how difficult it is for a designer to change an organization with multiple linkages, a long history and semi-autonomous units. This study contributes to the organizational design literature in two ways. First, it shows the importance of analogies and emergent exemplars as well as results that can be used in different contexts. Second, we argue and illustrate that the hierarchical position and experience of designers are major factors in how they deal with an evolving and partly unknown context.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of 4th Organization Studies Summer Workshop on Embracing Complexity : Advancing Ecological Understanding in Organization Studies, (OS Summer Workshop 2008), June 5-7, 2008, Pissouri, Cyprus
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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