Governance and Cooperative Networks: An Adaptive Systems Perspective

Ralph Stacey, Michaela Y. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


The Governance debate is usually couched in terms of the efficacy of formal structures to ensure a degree of cooperation sufficient to bring about order in human affairs. It is assumed that intended global outcomes for a system can be linked back to the local actions of agents in that system.
Sections 2 and 3 argue that studies of complex adaptive systems provide reasons for questioning whether it is possible to link the local actions and intentions of agents to the global behavioral patterns of the systems of which they are a part. The governance debate therefore needs a stronger focus on the dynamics of human systems to produce emergent order. This article is about the implications for governance of the cooperative informal networks that fuction in competition with the formal systems which spawn them.
Section 4 presents a case study of an international agency for technical assistance, which illustrates the points made in sections 2 and 3: people in that organization spontaneously self-organized to form a learning system out of which a new strategic direction for their organization and governance emerged. Tensions between the shadow organization and the formal organization generated new forms of behavior. This process of bounded instability—tension and conflict—is essential to break down old patterns of thought and behavior and to allow the new to emerge. This is typically how complex adaptive systems evolve.
In the fight against poverty and underdevelopment, those in authority and control need to be aware of the limitations on their capacity to orchestrate local actions so as to realize their own prior global objective within their organizations in breaking down old assumptions and creating new approaches to dealing with difficult issues. Therefore, the international organizations need to support adaptiveness in action, using an informal cooperative networking approach, which implies a new type of governance. If their managers (or new ones replacing them) do not introduce new mechanisms and approaches, with a faster response time, the prospects for their organizations are not bright, and their capacity and governance is very poor
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-94
JournalTechnological Forecasting and Social Change
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1997


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