Complexity, Management and Network Thinking

Textbook for the module
Textbook for the module

This week I returned to Warwick Business School to attend my compulsory face-to-face module, Complexity, Management and Network Thinking. Although I had attended lectures before at Warwick Week, I was expecting this to be a different experience given that it was five days on one module, and also because there were only 18 of us attending. Here’s how the week went:


Following a welcome from the Programme Co-ordinator, we were introduced to the academic lead for the module, Yasmin Merali; she introduced the course along with an overview of what to expect: this module was going to introduce us to some abstract concepts, instead of teaching us a set of theories and discussing case studies – sounds interesting!

Following the introduction, we split into small groups to analyse the pre-reading documents, and then critique these back to the entire class. Our group reviewed a paper from Michael Hammer (Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate) that discusses how re-engineering requires a review of an organisation’s “unwritten rules”, to be able to find transformational rather than incremental opportunities for change. Along with the papers that the other groups reviewed, this was a nice introduction to the module by looking at how complexity has been approached in the past.

Customer requirement? How to stop myself from making impulse purchases.
Customer requirement? How to stop yourself from making impulse purchases!

After breaking for lunch, there were lectures that introduced Business Process Reengineering, the role of IT, and Complex Systems. At this point the style of lecturing was revealed – it was certainly very abstract, and required lots of “cognitive thinking” to understand the concepts – this week was definitely going to be different!

The day was closed by an excellent presentation from Mat Hunter from the Design Council. He explored some of the key concepts involved in the design process, and  how the design process deals with complexity. There were plenty of examples in this presentation which started to bring the subject to life – including designing products such as a kettle, dealing with violence in A&E through design, and how to interpret customer requirements (see image on the right).


The second day started similar to the first, with a critique of a number of papers. Our group was allocated another HBR article, “A Practical Guide to Social Networks“. This was not, as I originally assumed, referring to sites like Facebook, but instead looked at various types of network that exist ranging from “routine response” networks like those within a contact centre, through to “customised response” networks  that bring together various individuals in an ad-hoc manner, which are great for identifying new business opportunities.

The day’s lectures covered a number of topics including Knowledge Management, Communities of Interest, Intelligence, and Open Source/Open Innovation. There were lots of concepts introduced, such as exploration vs. exploitation, invention vs. innovation and codification vs. diffusion vs. abstraction – all abstract concepts, but with some thought you could see how they fit into the activities of an organisation.

Tuesday closed with a presentation from Simon Owen from Deloitte, who gave a really good overview of Cybersecurity in the enterprise. As well as being a useful introduction to the risks and importance of this topic to those unfamiliar with it (I’d recommend this presentation for any business leader), it also started to bring to life the new challenges posed by complex networks.


This opened with a lecture on Social [people] Networks, a relatively straightforward lesson that looked at the roles of nodes, links, and how networks of nodes are ‘activated’ in order to get information or support a requirement. The video below is an interesting demonstration of how a network can operate – watch from 1:50 to see the network behaviour, or alternatively watch from the start and listen to the fascinating story as well.

Following this, we had three lectures. Firstly, Peter Allen from Cranfield University talked in-depth about Complex Systems, explaining their links to evolutionary processes, uncertainty, and the importance of micro-diversity. Then in the afternoon, Iqbal Adjali provided some insight into how complex systems have been used in the CPG industry, based on his past work at Unilever, followed by a discussion of the systematic risk that exists in the financial sector, and its contribution to the financial crisis from 2008.

This day closed with a  group brainstorming session to prepare for the following evening’s group presentation. In this exercise we had to identify a metaphor that can be used to articulate the complex business environment that this module has made us aware of. This invited lots of discussion that really exposed some of the concepts in the module, and we found two metaphors: rafting down a river, and the human perspective of the laws of Physics.


Thursday started with a short lecture on Competing in the Information Space, following which most of the day was handed over to guest speakers. First was Tony Quinlan from Narrate, who delivered an excellent presentation on the concept on narrative. One of the great things about this presentation was that he used narrative to explain some of the concepts from the last few days, which helped bring to life many of the abstract topics we had learned about. He then introduced the different types of systems: Ordered, Chaotic, and Complex, and how we can apply each of these to real-life scenarios. A humorous introduction to these can be seen below:

The final topic for discussion was the concept of distributed cognition and sensemaking, which was particularly interesting due to its immediate real-life applicability for collecting data. David Snowden (the guy presenting the above video) also joined us from Australia to provide some more detail based on his own work.

In the afternoon we had another lecture, followed by a very interesting presentation from Elizabeth Linder from Facebook. She talked about the impact of the network on political and governmental figures, and how they are dealing with the new way of engaging with their followers. As well as providing some insight into interaction through networks, there were many lessons shared that are applicable to us as future managers and leaders.

Following another group-preparation session, the day closed with a review of the topics from the week, to ensure that we had fully understood the various concepts introduced. We then returned later in the evening for each of the groups to present the metaphors they had discovered. This was a very informal activity, and a nice way to close the core content delivery.


Our last day started with a lecture from Dr Jack Cohen, a renowned biologist who provided a thought-provoking lecture on complexity in the space of ecology – and gave a different perspective to consider many of the concepts from. This included a live chemistry demonstration (which is shown at his website, linked above), not quite what we expected in an MBA module, but it was interesting to see how the concepts of complexity and chaos from the business environment can be replicated in a petri-dish!

Following this, Yasmin brought all the concepts together in a very visual fashion by drawing everything on one piece of paper and linking all the different concepts together. This “big picture”, which she alluded to at the start of the week, helped us to understand the reason for including all the different topics that we had covered, as well as highlighting some of the linkages that had not been obvious during the individual lectures.

The afternoon was then open for one-on-one consultations with Yasmin on the topics that we are exploring in our assignment. This was a really useful discussion that helped me to narrow down my options as well as provide some guidance on how to get started.

Looking back

To summarise the week in its entirety, I feel that the module has covered some very important topics, and put into perspective many of the complexities of the business environment. It hasn’t shown us how to apply the concepts, but this was by design from the start, with the intention to challenge us and get us thinking in a different way. The opportunity that I and the rest of the students now have is to take the concepts from the week, and apply them to the team, organisation or industry in which we work, to account for the networks involved and the complexity of the environment.

The face-to-face experience was also really valuable – spending five days with a smaller group of people than at Warwick Week was great, with plenty of opportunities to get to know each other and be exposed to a diverse set of perspectives.

So that’s it for this week – all the content has been covered for this semester now. I submitted my Management Accounting assignment during the week, so all I’ve got to do now (for this semester) is finish my Management of Change assignment and then write the final assignment for this module. Here goes…


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