According to 2008 ALNAP research on organisational change in the humanitarian sector, ‘all theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organisations in distinctive yet partial ways.’

One of the key metaphors used in that work, drawing on the groundbreaking efforts of organisational theorist Gareth Morgan, was to consider aid organisation as brains.

This idea has gathered pace in the last few decades and years. Organisational development approaches increasingly focus on the thorny issues of information, knowledge and learning. Such approaches draw – in many cases implicitly – on theories of how the brains functions.

For example, perhaps the most widespread model of organisational learning is that of ‘learning loops’, developed Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. As they put it in their classic work:

When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.

So in the aid sector, single-loop learning might involve asking ‘are we delivering food aid well?’, while double-loop learning might ask ‘should we be delivering food aid at all?’

Many approaches seem to be built on some shared assumptions which draw from an underlying notion of how the brain works, including the following:

  • strong central leadership and control is necessary to direct learning efforts, akin to ‘thermostatic processes’
  • clear goals and objectives are vital provide a context and frameworks for learning
  • hierarchies are essential to allocate clear responsibilities for learning
  • getting the overall organisational structure correct is key and
  • information systems should be designed from the top down to fit with the high-level goals

While these may be sensible assumptions in some settings, it seems that the ‘learning loop’ and similar approaches draw on theories and models of the brain that are increasingly out of date. Recent advances in understanding how the brain works in practice provide contrasting perspectives for thinking about organisational learning.

First, research published this month by scientists at the University of California has identified that much of the current understanding of the brain is based on weak and outdated assumptions. As one of the researchers recently said in an interview:  “You would be amazed at how much of the current experimental neuroscience literature is dominated by ‘top-down thinking’, which goes back to the 19th Century. The approach seems to be akin to a thermostatic one, which implies power and control that is concentrated in a particular location in the brain.”

These scientists have shown that the brain is in fact a vast interconnected network much like the Internet, contradicting traditional “top-down” views of brain structure.

If the brain has a hierarchical structure like a large company, as neurology has long held, the “to” and “from” diagram would show straight lines from independent regions up towards a central processing unit: the company’s boss. But instead, the researchers saw loops between differing regions, feeding back to and directly linking regions that were not known to communicate with one another. This is a better fit with the model of vast networks such as the internet. Such a highly interconnected structure has been hypothesised for some time, and could prove to be a powerful tool in analysing how the brain processes information. But it had not, until now, been demonstrated experimentally.”

Second, another feature of the brain that has seen speculation and hypotheses but little demonstration until relatively recently is the idea that the human brain operates “on the edge of chaos”. This is defined as a critical transition point between randomness and order (and, needless to say, this concept is a rather compelling one for Aid on the Edge 🙂 )

This “edge of chaos” state can emerge spontaneously from the multilayered interactions between the many elements that make up a complex system. It has been identified in many different settings, including avalanches, forest fires, ecosystems, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.

Recent research published by a team led by Cambridge University researchers provides new and compelling data to support this theory.

Using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques they were able to measure changes in the synchronisation of activity between different regions of the human brain. The results suggest that the brain can spontaneously organise itself at a point on the edge of chaos between order and randomness. This point at the edge of chaos allows neurones to jump quickly between different states enabling them to alter behaviour as necessary, allowing humans to respond quickly to the environment around them. A similar idea is used in the design of fighter jets – they are designed to be aerodynamically unstable (a state of chaos) and can only be controlled with the aid of computers, though this instability means they are extremely quick to respond to commands. These results suggest that the dynamics of human brain networks – the basis for thought, emotion and action – have something in common with very different systems in nature.

What are the possible implications for organisational learning theory and practice?

For starters, a number of the assumptions about the learning organisation cited earlier which are fundamentally challenged by this new understanding of the complex functioning of the brain.

At the very least, the metaphor of the organisation as a brain needs us to shift from a model of learning based on thermostatic, centrally directed, error-detecting processes to one which considers learning as a series of networked, self-organised, spontaneous processes. This gives additional weight to the idea of ‘emergent learning’ being of critical importance  within organisations.

Rather than trying to formalise and control through information systems, the implication is that one should be trying to strengthen the social dynamics and practices that facilitate learning. While many of those working on knowledge and learning efforts in aid agencies know this to be true – and there have been some brave efforts to strengthen social learning – in practice top-down, systems-based approaches have dominated. (Some of these issues were explored in a previous post on social media, aid agencies and complexity.)

This is not to say that all top-down approaches are bad, or that all emergent processes are good. Instead, a better balance between the two is the holy grail of effective learning. In Bill Easterly lingo, becoming learning aid agencies requires both Planners and Searchers, as relevant and appropriate, and in ways demanded by circumstances and context. 

Successful learning processes always require a degree of planning, but this must be allowed to emerge and change as parts of an organisation take a lead in making their various contributions. In succesful learning processes, hierarchy and control have an emergent quality; they cannot be pre-designed and imposed.

The fundamental challenge is how to navigate the tensions and contradictions between ‘leadership + power’ and ‘adaptation + innovation’.

As Morgan puts it:

Any move away from hierarchically controlled structures toward more flexible, emergent patterns has major implications for the distribution of power and control within an organization, as the increase in autonomy granted to self-organizing units undermines the ability of those with ultimate power to keep a firm hand on day-to-day activities and developments. Moreover, the process of learning requires a degree of openness and self-criticism that is foreign to traditional modes of management. Both of these factors tend to generate resistance from the status quo. Managers are often reluctant to trust self- organizing processes among their staff and truly “let go.” Many early experiments in self-organizing work designs encountered this problem, and many still do. There is such a strong belief that order means clear structure and hierarchical control that any alternative seems to be a jump in the direction of anarchy and chaos.”

The next post on Aid on the Edge will look at ‘complex adaptive leadership’ in some more detail.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. A very useful post. I remember being a young punk on an executive team in 1996 looking at ten-year strategic planning. We were hunting for ‘evergreening’ type metaphors so that the strategic plan could be renewed as it was being pursued. I came across a Time article on the development of the human brain before birth and up to age seven or so.

    I felt I had found our metaphor and proceeded to develop a strategy based on that. It was politely received but deemed to be too far out there. I argued that as the most complex entity in the known universe, the human brain would be ideal as a rich metaphor, if nothing else. The way that our brains evince malleability and structure simultaneously in response to experience and myriad other factors remains fascinating to me. I think I still have the dot-matrix printed proposal outline somewhere.

    Despite that setback, the idea has never left me an complexity theory has since grown to a point of much greater respectability and affirms those early, half-formed instincts.

    I’ve cobbled loose thoughts together on adaptive leadership based on complexity theory in a scratch-book that I’d be happy to send you as a PDF if you’re interested (Ingenuity Arts: Adaptive Leadership and the New Science). I reviewed Heifetz, Grashow and Linksy as well (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership) on Amazon.

    I’m looking forward to the next post.

  2. I’m observing too the sector’s increasing desperation to “know” what is sometimes beyond logic and induction, but is rather embedded in relationship and social inquiry. Bruce Britton did a great paper at INTRAC to call out the difference between knowledge management and organizational learning, highlighting what was needed to bring about this shift–motive, means & opportunity. You might find it interesting from his viewpoint as a organizational development & capacity building expert:

    You can also read his blog at:

  3. This is the most consice and yet accurate description of what I personally believe complexity to be ‘all about’. Well done mate.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Chaos, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Self organisation, Strategy