Systems Theory is the Old Paradigm, be it closed, mechanistic, or open and adaptive. Time to move on.

It used to be that an open system or an adaptive system was new. Sorry, it was new in World War II. It was somewhat old when I learned it in Ph.d. training in 1976. Now its pretty old school. Here are three old paradigm images

Figure 1: Systems Theory Images in Old Paradigm

At left, systems are texts, whatever researchers can note about them. In the Center, systems are whatever a systems theorist says they are (be they mechanistic, closed, or open). To the right old models assume that there is a system out there, as if its a 'whole' puzzle just waiting to be solved, identified, or completed. I have used the puzzle analogy when introducing systems thinking. Its a place to start. But the new Complexity paradigm has very different images. You heard the old saw, 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' For Edgar Morin, that is only one way, the old paradigm way to look at it. Sometimes, there is no whole system. There are just pieces, and overlays, and partially implemented, and partially erased pieces looking for a whole that will never be.

Figure 2: Complexity Theory Images in New Paradigm

At left, the Dali time is bent, and there are many temporalities that compete for attention. In the Escher staircases, the routes keep changing as you move just like in those Harry Potter movies. At right, our complexity comes from living in several worlds at once, as in being in a physical world, a virtual world, and a dinosaur world (or one with ancestors). In short, complexity is not just about sense-making, its about how in 'social construction' the social means that many people have different ways of sense-giving, and these ways form what I call hollographic complexities.

Complexity Theory is the New Paradigm,

Complexity theory admits to more than one sense-giving is co-present, and focuses ont what I have defined (2008, The Storytelling Organization book) as 'systemicity': unfinishedness, unmergedness, and unfinalizability. Big words. What do they mean? Instead of a finished, merged-part, or whole 'system' there is a multi-layered, multi-refracted, or as I put it, a ''holographic' complexity. Learning to theorize and to empirically study the difference between old school 'system' and new paradigm 'systemicity' will be your fundamental learning objective this term. Be cautious. Just because it's Old School does not mean its gone. Rather, the bureaucratic, mechanistic, and other monologic frames interplay with each other, and with the so-called 'open systems' and the 'adaptive systems' ways of sense-giving.


von Bertallanffy in 1940s , Katz & Kahn (1966), even Richard Scott et al (2007) forgot James (1907) had laid the groundwork for Open Systems Theory decades earlier, and did it in a more hybrid fashion.

James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. Lecture Four: The One and the Many. Learn the Eight Pragmatic Systemicity' critiques of Open Systems Theory. Then, relate those to Eight Quantum Systemicities (see table).

Bob and I were challenging TQM pretty early on. I did not think it was being done according to the New Paradigm. Instead it seemed so very Bureaucratic, a Closed System thinking trying to pretend it was Open Systems, at a time when the theorists were looking ahead to find something Beyond Open Systems thinking. I teamed up with a Marketing Professor and did a critique of TQM for its Systems Thinking.



Is this the Postmodern Turn?

Not really. It would be more accurate to say that we have pre-modern ways of being, and some modern ways of being, and some postmodern ways of being. All of these ways of being are happing all at once. I used to think of them as hybrids. But now I see the multiple ways of sense-giving as a kind of dance of complexity. My issue, as you will learn, is that open systems theory is a monologic solution to very complex problems. It doe shave deviation-counteracting (1st cybernetics) and deviation-amplifying (2nd cybernetics), but fails to deal with what my friend Ken Baskin and I call, '3rd cybernetics.' Here is a quick and easy introduction:



Since you asked about postmodern. There are actually quite a few very different postmoderns. There is one that so like modern TQM or complex adaptive systems thinking, you can not tell them apart. There is another that only tells positive (dare I say 'Appreciative' narratives), or tells 5 positive for every one negative story. Then there are the Critters who tell only negative stories, or five critical stories for every one positive one. Finally, there are the radicals (Baudrillard& Lyotard) who think everything has gone virtual, that as Guy Debord said it before either of them, we live in the Society of the Spectacle. While postmodern turn is waning, there is still good interest out there. I recently cracked the mighty Leadership Quarterly with a piece on Ronald McDonald, all about simulacra.


What is Complexity Theory Good For?

You can study just about any macro phenomenon. For example, the complexity of an operation, a supply chain, a government agency, how a process is mapped out in production, how marketing occurs in a global economy, how strategy shifts over time & by constituent, how a polyphonic (multi-voiced) strategy works, how to change from one kind of complexity to another, how to research emergence, how leadership is situational in complex adaptive systems, or how Tamara works.

What is Tamara?

Tamara is my word for how there is simultaneous action in different rooms, and people are only in one room at a time, so they are always trying to network with others (face-to-face, or virtually) and figure out what is going on. See also the journal I edit,


What is the Relation of Complexity and Storytelling?

This has been my thirty year quest. I started out studying networking among organizations. Used to teach macro intercommunication system theory course at UCLA in 1979 and into the 1980s. Not going to read any of these, but its a way to tell my story.

  • Boje, David M. 1979. Centrality in Interorganizational Networks. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Organizational Behavior, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. A chapter was published in Administrative Science Quarterly.
  • Boje, D.M. & Whetten, D.A. 1981. "Effects of Organizational Strategies & Constraints on Centrality & Attributions of Influence in Interorganizational Networks," Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 26, pp. 378-397, Sept. Used block modeling of 19 interorganizational networks, total of 316 organizations surveyed with 100% sample return.

It was at UCLA that Stew Leonard Jr. began taking classes from me. I was developing my interest in storytelling. I was teaching a Ph.D. seminar in large systems interorganization networks, and another in storytelling research methods. Stew, and MBA student took them both. Students who took them both began to look at macro issues. How organizations market themselves with storytelling, how storytelling is the preferred sensemaking currency (Boje, 1991: 106), and how multiple organizations might be forming and changing their networking based on storytelling. I worked with several good doctoral students. UCLA had a lot of very bright talent. TK Das asked me for a term paper I wrote in a course I took from Louis R. Pondy when I was at University of Illinois doing my Ph.D. It was a study of the relation of phenomenology and Interorganizational networking. Years later it became an article. Another Ph.D. student at UCLA was working with me to do auto-worker retraining, and change what we at UCLA were calling 'Transmogrification Networks.' I thought this could be done with storytelling. Transorganization development and storytelling, it turns out are quite inter-related. At New Mexico State, when Mark Hillon was a doctoral student, we started working on the project again, relating it to how small businesses network. Not going to read any of these either.

  • Das, T.K. & Boje, D.M. "Interorganizational networks: A meaning-based perspective." The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 1 (2)- April), 1993: 161-183.
  • Boje, D.M. & Wolfe, T., "Transorganizational Development: Contributions to Theory & Practice," pp. 733-753.Leavitt, H., Pondy, L. R. & Boje, D.M., Readings in Managerial Psychology, Chicago Press, 731 pages, 3rd Edition, 1980 (4th Edition, 1989, 769 pages)
  • Boje, D. M. & Hillon, Mark. 2008. Transorganizational Development, Chapter 34, pp. 651-654, in Tom Cummings (Ed) Handbook of Organizational Change. Sage. See book link

I got a big break when in 1991, after not getting tenure at UCLA, Administrative Science Quarterly accepted a qualitative study. Funny thing about this article is it keeps being cited (last I looked it was over 350 cites), where as my networking systems work got about 50 cites). It was a longitudinal study of how leaders effect change in the systemic's in what I named, The 'Storytelling Organization' by telling stories. The big discovery and why ASQ cared to publish this piece was (1) People don't tell beginning, middle, & end narrative forms very often, (2) More often they use terse (highly coded) telling, (3) Tellings are distributed across the rooms and across the cities in which this Office Supply Firm operated, and (4) Tellings are swirling around like some kind of whirlpool in a kind of complexity between the organization and its many environments. The study involved hundreds of hours of observation, and hours and hours of taping, transcribing, to try to trace what was this strange relation between complexity and storytelling. By this time, I was getting ten times the requests for the storytelling articles than I was for the macro systems work. Probably read this one.

I kept studying Storytelling Organizations, one by one, or multiple ones interacting. Environments are often made up of other organizations, and even Mother Nature, has organizations disputing every foot of ground. This landed my in Academy of Management Journal before it became fashionable to do qualitative work there. With the focus on Disney, how could they resist. The Postmodern movement was taking off, had not peaked, or begun its slide. Its citation rate is growing and may eclipsed the 1991 ASQ article. And we can read this one, since its a hot item once again.


I am doing an All Academy Showcase session at the annual Academy of Management Meetings and a PDW with my friend Bob Gephart. You are all welcome to attend.


  • Boje, D. M. 2008. Academy of Management session: Questions We Ask Disney Smile Factory for an All Academy Showcase Session. I will be chairing the session and presenting, along with noted Disney scholars John Van Maanen, Mary Yoko Brannen, and one of our former doctoral students, Carolyn Gardner. Session will be in August - in Anaheim. Boje is Chair, session is Tuesday, August 12, 2008 10:30:00 AM - 11:50:00 AM, Anaheim Convention Center, 204B
  • Boje, D. M. 2008. Pre-conference workshop, Not Mickey Mouse: Methodological Writing to Address Qualitative Questions. Participant, Sunday, August 10, 2008, 8:00:00 AM - 11:00:00 AM Hilton Anaheim, El Capitan B Gephart is chair.

Is There Anything Practical and Pragmatic about Complexity Theory?

There are two practical examples of combining Complexity Theory and Storytelling:

See Boje (2014) for the pragmatic aspects


Boje, D. M. (2013). Quantum Restorying of the PTSD Leviathan: Posthumanist, Critical New Materialisms of Wider Agentic-Trauma of Military and Civilian Bodies. Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Quantum Storytelling Conference, December 15-

17, 2013, Las Cruces New Mexico


In 2007, our class hosted an International Conference on Story and (System) Complexity. It took place in Old Mesilla at the end of October, and was sold out. A book based on this conference by Ken Baskin and I should be released lat this semester. It combines complexity and story thinking.


Complex Adaptive Systems - Usually means a unified, whole, complex system that is one-logic (unilogical), with merged-parts that are adapting to a changing, perhaps turbulent environment. There are boundaries and boundary-spanners. This is the OLD PARADIGM thinking.

Dialogical - Edgar Morin defined a “’dialogical’ relationship… between order, disorder and organization” that is “antagonistic, concurrent and complementary” (Morin, 1996: 11). "Morin’s complexity ways of looking outside the rule of order into the disorder, self-organization of emergence in everyday practical social communication activity of organizations that is not system parts merged into whole-ness, because the parts do not merge, and the whole never seems to be finalized except in narrative imagination" (Boje, 2008: STO Ch 1). Mikhail Bakhtin defined several dialogisms that cen be related to strategy models: polyphonic strategy (many novices co-making strategy) stylistic strategy (many styles that become holographic refractions), chronotopic strategy (many ways of time/space interplays), architectonic (discourses of ethics, aesthetics & cognitive that interanimate), and a new one I am calling 'Polypi" (interplay of all the dialogisms at one time with the Spiritual Strategy).

Systemicity is defined as the dynamic unfinished, unfinalized, and unmergedness, and the interactivity of complexity properties (such as, dialogic, recursion, and holographic yielding emergence & self-organization) constituted by narrative-story processes, in the dance of sensemaking (see introduction). I invoke the word ‘systemicity’ in order to attack the ‘illusion’ that ‘whole system’ exists, because given the paradigm shift to complexity, and the focus on emergence (& self-organization), organizations are continually being reorganized, and never seem to finish long enough to have merged-parts or some kind of fixity of wholeness.

Holographic - Morin (1996: 14) in two sentences specifies a way out of hierarchic order, to let the properties of what I call systemicity interact without the presumption of hierarchy:

The “hologrammatic’ principle highlights the apparent paradox of certain systems where not only is the part present in the whole, but the whole is present in the part: the totality of the genetic heritage is present in each individual cell. In the same way, the individual is part of society but society is present in every individual, through his or here language, culture and standards.

Rather strange vocabulary, but so far I have never used it.

Table 3 Holographic Complexity Chart

Monogon – 1 dimension

Digon – 2 dimensions

Trigon – 3 dimensions

Tetragon – 4 dimensions

Pentagon – 5 dimensions

Hexagon – 6 dimensions

Septagon  - 7 dimensions

Octagon – 8 dimensions

Nonagon – 9 dimensions

Decagon – 10 dimensions

Hendecagon – 11 dimensions

Dodecagon – 12 dimensions

Tridecagon – 13 dimensions

Source: Boje (2008) The Storytelling Organization. Chapter 1 -