Monday, December 7, 2009

The science of complexity

Warren Weaver wrote one of the classic papers on complexity in 1948. Even though that was more than 60 years ago, some things are timeless.
Entitled "Science and Complexity", it postulates two views of complexity: 'disorganized complexity' and 'organized complexity'.

Disordered complexity deals with situations of many elements that interfere with each other in difficult-to-predict or even random ways.  Weaver writes what is ".... meant by a problem of disorganized complexity. It is a problem in which the number of variables is very large, and one in which each of the many variables has a behavior which is individually erratic, or perhaps totally unknown. However, in spite of this helter-skelter, or unknown, behavior of all the individual variables, the system as a whole possesses certain orderly and analyzable average properties."

Wow! that sounds like a software system!  On average, we know what is going to happen, but moment to moment, the odds are that something strange might occur. 

This certainly the case for latency in the Web, order frequency at an on-line store, and even the iteractions of tens of thousand of objects that make up large scale systems.  The curious thing is that as knowledge of any particular actor becomes more difficult to predict, the precision of the average response tends to improve by the square root of the number of actors in the sample.

Organized complexity, on the other hand, are equally vexing problems, but they are problems of relatively few variables.  Hence, many of the statistical techniques do not apply because the average response is not an appropriate way to observe the situation.

Weaver again writes: Organized complexity ".... are all problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.".  The behavior of a handful of objects is one of organized complexity.

One strategy heartily endorsed by Weaver in his paper is what he calls 'mixed teams', which today we call mult-disciplinary teams.  He writes with amazing foresight:  "It is tempting to forecast that the great advances that science can and must achieve in the next fifty years will be largely contributed to by voluntary mixed teams, somewhat similar to the operations analysis groups of war days, their activities made effective by the use of large, flexible, and highspeed computing machines. However, it cannot be assumed that this will be the exclusive pattern for future scientific work, for the atmosphere of complete intellectual freedom is essential to science. There will always, and properly, remain those scientists for whom intellectual freedom is necessarily a private affair"

One only has to look at the current literature on agile teams and the role of the the SME outsider as an indvidual but eccentric contributor to see that there is not much new in the world.

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