Slide 1

Chaotics

Michael Mainelli, The Z/Yen Group

[A version of this book review originally appeared as "Chaotics", Long Range Planning, Volume  31, Number 2,  (1998) pages 327-328.]

Chaotics - An Agenda for Business and Society in the 21st Century, GEORGES ANDERLA, ANTHONY DUNNING, SIMON FORGE, Adamantine Press Limited (1997) 224 pp.

"This book is about chaos.  And Complexity.  Together they spell 'chaotics'." So the authors introduce their book.  This book may be a good example of chaotics, if the term implies loose ends, random associations and incomplete arguments.  The basic premise of Chaotics is that the unification of complex systems theory with research into non-linear dynamic systems, commonly called 'chaos theory', will provide problem-solving tools with application "to business management, distribution of wealth, social and natural environments".  The authors imply that the premise is revolutionary, but researchers in complex systems and chaos theory have long seen the overlaps in their areas of interest.  What is disappointing is that there does exist a yearning for a strong unifying theory among researchers in complexity and chaos which this book merely teases.  A cynic might observe that at the heart of this book is the premise that one can take two research areas, bang them together and with minimal intellectual effort, hey presto, create a more powerful, explanatory model which, incidentally, is a new best-selling, problem-solving tool.  The argument can be caricatured by analogy - take economics which explains some things; take mathematics which explains other things; now you have 'mathenomics'; all things are now explained.

It may be helpful to judge the authors by their own definition of chaotics - "a reference framework encompassing a comprehensive corpus of concepts, methodologies, and practical tools from chaos theory and complex systems theory." Chaotics lacks a reference framework.  They do present several frameworks from other people, but not one of their own.  The authors argue almost solely from analogy - non-linear systems can be chaotic; business is non-linear; chaotic modelling will help business.  The authors fail to propose a structured set of concepts or to provide practical tools.  They fail to synthesise their thoughts into a methodology.  The closest they come to a methodology is a phrase halfway through the book - "the new approach is really to ponder the relevance of chaos theory, complexity and chaotics to understand ambiguous or discordant messages and advice." Pondering does not take us much further forward.  The final chapter concludes with twelve principles of thinking with chaotics, seven pitfalls, seven pillars of business dynamics and seven new therapies for social decay.  This chapter might have been more compelling had these principles been elucidated and 'proven' throughout the book.

Chapter 7, "Technology Forecasting, with a Safety Net", is one of the more lucid chapters.  In it the authors examine some of the limits of planning.  If a discussion of the limits of planning interests a reader, it will be more instructive to read Mintzberg's The Rise and Fall of Strategic PlanningChaotics frequently prompts comparisons with other books where the wide-ranging topics have been covered better before, e.g.  Gleick's Chaos, Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, Adams' Risk, any Checkland or Beer on systems and cybernetics.  In particular, Chaotics invites frequent, unflattering comparisons with an excellent book, Kelly's Out of Control, which covers more solidly many similar issues such as chaos, evolutionary metaphors and self-organisation, albeit from the perspective of machine biology.

In common with many texts aimed partially at managers, the authors would have benefited from a more severe editor, one who would remove verbs such as "to nutshell" and "to pauperize", split infinitives such as "to progressively replace", or mixed metaphors such as a "first pass in this new vein".  However, even a more disciplined editor would find editing difficult with raw ore from this vein - "Often these attempts at introducing science to management have subsequently been derided as little more than gimmicks.  This is somewhat unfair.  On the other hand, few of them have proved capable of durably enhancing the prospects for business growth.  Only business reengineering, the far greater plan behind BPR, has been shown to be truly effective, and only when it questions truly poor management, and only in the right expert hands, when sociology and industrial psychology are carefully used to effect change." An editor must have surely struggled - "But any overblown programme would be doomed just as surely as all the grandiose attempts have failed in the past.  To maximize the chances for success it would be wise to select a few highly visible objectives and then marshal overwhelming resources, and if possible work from bottom-up.  Whatever actions are undertaken, they should be prudently targeted and aimed at cooperation at all levels - local, regional, national and international, and both public and private."

The truly difficult challenge with this book is to approach it without an air of expectation.  Complex systems theory and chaos have long provided thrilling analogies to business, society and nature.  Unfortunately, to date, few practical tools have emerged.  It is impossible to ascertain whether Chaotics presents an attempt at a survey, a rationalisation of different theories, a critical review or (as claimed) a new, unifying theory.  One can admire the authors' exuberant, syncretic, polymath approach.  For instance, references to Deuteronomy, Solon of Athens, Islamic law, hunger and the internet are all intermingled in one short chapter.  Breadth of scope and an 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach to argument leave a reader feeling that voluminous, nearly random association masquerades as conclusive proof.  As a consequence of breadth much of the argument misses the mark, for example, the authors refer to, but do not seem to have understood or researched the London Ambulance Service difficulties.  One may sympathise with their selection of unemployment, poverty and the environment as the key issues facing the world.  One fails to see that these authors have a coherent approach to these issues.

The authors freely appropriate other models, spending a fair portion of the book recapitulating interesting mathematical illustrations of chaos, iterative functions and economics, which are well-explained in other texts.  They also 'borrow' quite a bit of science, at the same time rediscovering many common misunderstandings, e.g.  stating that "the aim of survival is at the level of the species" rather than the gene, confusing disaster event frequency with impact, muddling observation with theory or freely interchanging chaos and non-linearity.  The frequent overblown statements and poorly explained science lead one to suspect that techno-babble in search of popularity is the driving force behind Chaotics.