Cultural complexity: a new epistemological perspective

Marie-Joëlle Browaeys, Walter Baets

The Authors
Marie-Joëlle Browaeys, Assistant Professor of Cross-cultural Management, at Nyenrode University, Breukelen, The Netherlands
Walter Baets, Philips Chair in Information and Communication Technologies, at Nyenrode University, Breukelen, The Netherlands

Culture is a complex process. Many authors show the importance of the concept of culture in organizations. The question which arises is how to approach the cultural problematic of organizations. The paper proposes that the traditional ways – based on the Cartesian epistemology – do not match with the cultural complexity, since it simplifies too much to be satisfying. This paper proposes a new paradigm called “complexity thinking” which seems to be more appropriate for studying culture in organizations. Furthermore, the paper outlines the concepts and principles of this epistemology that could be seen more as a strategy than a ready-for-use method in approaching culture in learning organizations.


Article Type: Research paper Keyword(s): Culture (sociology); Epistemology; Learning; Globalization.
The Learning Organization Volume 10 Number 6 2003 pp. 332-339 Copyright © MCB UP Ltd ISSN 0969-6474
Republished  in :

Knowledge Management and Management Learning. Extending the Horizons of Knowledge-Based Management. Edited by Walter Baets, Springer, 2005

Complexity is a problem construct rather than a solution provider (Morin, 1990, p. 10).


Complexity is defined by its sources, its principles and its objective. This is what the newspaper Le Monde(2003), wrote in a review of the book of the sociologist Reda Benkirane [1] La Complexité, Vertiges et Promesses: “This author presents here a series of interviews with scientists of various disciplines – such as Prigogine, Varela, Morin, Steels, Kauffman – all utilizing the concept of complexity, this multidisciplinary idea that refuses to parcel out fundamental problems”. This epistemological approach[2] that brings together different disciplines, was already announced by Bachelard (1934, p. 11) in the Le Nouvel Esprit Scientifique. He foresees an epistemology that will express the “character of a non-Cartesian epistemology”, which he qualifies as being “the real innovation of the contemporary scientific spirit”. (2003), wrote in a review of the book of the sociologist Réda Benkirane[1],

Culture is a complex process. This process does not go in good harmony with the traditional ways – based on the Cartesian epistemology – of the management of organizations which simplifies too much to be satisfying. What is the place of culture in the organization? Research on organizational culture showed the necessity of taking into account cultural references when tackling management problems. Referring to Thévenet (1999, p. 10), the culture assists the organization in dealing with management problems: “In all of our field studies, we never saw a firm interested in the culture itself, but focus on culture always had the aim of solving actual problems, related to strategy, take-over, mobility of employees, re-organization, thus, to communication. Culture is just a tool to better deal with these problems”.

But what does cultural complexity mean? According to Sackmann (1997, p. 2) the concept of cultural complexity “encompasses both ideas: simultaneously existing multiple cultures that may contribute to a homogenous, differentiated, and/or fragmented cultural context”. Hence, the cultural complexity perspective suggests that culture in organizational settings is much more complex, pluralistic, diverse, contradictory, or inherently “paradoxical” than it appears at first sight.

Many others also show the importance of the concept of culture in the organizations. In their critical review of literature on organizational learning, Wang and Ahmed (2003, p. 11) noticed that “there is a strong emphasis on the cultural perspective of the learning organization”. In addition, there is a need for a new epistemology as was made clear bySøderberg and Holden (2002). They state that the learning organisation “becomes the knowledge-creating organization, a new kind of communicating entity … that requires new forms of intercultural communication know-how” and that “[t]he key engine of learning is the multicultural team” (Søderberg and Holden, 2002, p. 110). Therefore we need to understand and use another epistemology that “will allows for new concepts to describe and analyse the cultural complexity in different business settings” (Søderberg and Holden, 2002, p. 112).

The problem of “culture” in (learning) organizations

In the world in general, one of the topics most often approached currently, is that of globalization. The researchers of any discipline are brought to put questions such as that posed by Benkirane (2003, p. 216) to Kauffman:

This globalisation or universalization, can it be regarded as a holistic process[3], in other words like a process which is truly universal, general, which takes into consideration the various dimensions – social, cultural, ecological, and why not spiritual – of human societies?

In his answer, Kauffman believes that there will be a combination of globalization and decentralization. He also foresees an increase in diversity: “we will invent diversity more quickly than we will make it homogeneous” (Benkirane, 2003, p. 217).

What means globalization for an organization?

Berthoin-Antal (1998) answers that globalization depends on the degree of globalization of each company and the experience which it has been able to acquire. This comprises both the phase of globalization of the company – multidomestic, international, multinational, transnational – and the functions related to international responsibilities. Ruigrok and Wagner (2003, p. 72) add to this the international disposition of the firms’ top management teams and give as examples the members’ educational and professional experience in foreign countries, the breadth of nationalities on board, the top management teams’ cultural heterogeneity. In summary, we can say that it is beyond doubt now that the process of globalization is a reality and that it is still progressing at high speed. The same is true for the increase in cultural diversity in domestic and international companies where people from different cultural backgrounds work more and more together. (Browaeys, 2000, p. 13). The globalization of the companies would be related to the diversity which would be itself related to the internationalization of the organizations.

Which problems underlie the process of internationalization?

According to a survey by Adler (1991) the heterogeneity of the cultural background of the members of this kind of organizations is seen at the one hand as a potential source of problems, but at the other hand as a possible advantage for the organization. Within organizations operating in an international environment, both partners and collaborators will be brought into intercultural situations that need to be turned into a benefit to prevent failure of the strategy of internationalization (Browaeys, 2000). According to Harzing and Sorge (2003, p. 191), internationalization strategy refers “to the way multinationals fashion relations between headquarters, subsidiaries and the diverse markets and institutional contexts in which they operate”. Based on this statement we conducted interviews in several companies that revealed that managers may have very different perceptions of the notion “international context”. We asked the following question: “What represents for you ‘being international’?”

Below a selection of their answers to the question:

For a company, to be “international” does not necessary mean that it has to have foreign managers. International thinking is independent of the question of nationality. In my opinion, to be international is a question firstly of mentality: nationality has nothing to do with it. Secondly it is useless, not necessary to have too many nationalities at the top (Dutch Executive Board).

One of the best things to do in building an international culture at a company is to have managers with international experience outside of their countries (Dutch Corporate HRM).

Being international is also to accept differences, and to build upon differences. And to benefit from differences (French Corporate Managing Director).

The essential solution lies in having international people (not just an international varnish) at the Head Quarter who are sensitive as to what is going on in the operating companies (Belgian Technical Director).

My active involvement in the recruiting of my management team is a crucial factor. I have consciously applied my insight into the cultural “make-up” of the candidates for managerial positions and carefully assessed the cultural requirement of the positions to be filled (French Managing Director).

A large organisation has to set up step by step its international orientation. One can be Dutch in the first place and make place for other cultures having common strategy and objectives. The results have to be reached, but the way how cannot be identical for example in France and Italy. Thus, you have to be international to manage the cultural and market differences with a single vision. You have to recognise the value of all internal partners regardless their origin (Italian HRM Director).

How to interpret these examples?

These examples show how difficult it is to formulate the ideal profile of the international manager. It is not more the person who has work experience abroad than the one who followed cross-cultural management workshops. Moreover, since the people interviewed created their own “subjective reality” (Schumacher, 1997, p. 110), there is a discrepancy between perceptions and reality. Koenig (1994, p. 83) points out that the complexity and the ambiguity of the real world give room to interpretations which may be not only different, but also contradictory.

However, just these subjective representations that the managers have about what means “being international”, inform you how they see reality. These representations are based on the natural knowledge that an individual person acquires during his/her history. According to Genelot (1998, pp. 110-11) our relationship with reality, our acts, things we build and direct have no other source than our subjective representations. He adds that, “if we thus build the complex reality from our internal representations, it is crucial for better directing our future that we understand how our representations build up, how our ‘system of representations works (Le Moigne)’” (Genelot, 1988). A system that is composed of three elements: the paradigm, the context and the objective.

A new perspective on cultural complexity?

The debate on the external culture (national cultural context) and internal culture (organizational culture) of a company causes antagonism between the researchers in the field of intercultural management. Referring to the article of Meschi and Roger (1994, p. 198):

The idea has been widespread that organizational culture moderates or erases the influence of national culture. It assumed that employees working for the same organization even if they are from different countries are more similar than different (Adler, 1991, p. 46). On the contrary, others affirm that national culture is predominant compared with organizational culture (Hofstede, 1980; Laurent, 1983; d’Iribarne, 1986).

What means culture?

The word “culture” one can never employ without being obliged to launch out in multiple definitions which only serve to even more oppose them! And if this term had only one meaning? Culture, irrespective whether it is aesthetic, philosophical, national, organizational or managerial, wouldn’t it only be a form of individual or collective representation? Genelot (1998, p. 195) stresses that men are products of their culture: “their representations, their visions of what is good and what is wrong, their behaviour in work, their concepts of organisations are the fruit of the representations carried by their ancestors”. Can one thus state that a change of culture would only be a change in representations?

How to approach the cultural problematic of organizations?

To first make the choice which paradigm among the paradigms – in the sense given them by Morin (1990), “des principes supralogiques d’organisation de la pensée” (“Metalogical principles to organize our thinking”) – is the essential epistemological condition for any research. This does not mean to imply a complete adhesion to the selected paradigm. He adds that a paradigm is made up by a certain type of extremely strong logical relation between the main concepts, the key concepts, the key principles (Morin, 1990, p. 79). For Thévenet (1999, pp. 52-3) the relevance of paradigmatic approaches to organizations is to bring about a contrasted and subtle approach of reality through various frames of reference.

According to Wunenburger (1990, p. 16), “as well the natural sciences as the social sciences has given up the ideal of epistemological unity which would permit to illuminate the totality of reality by a single and universal reason”. Indeed, Prigogine (2000, p. 11, cited in Granier, 2001, p. 207) points out the distinction which was made between the social sciences which include “the unforeseeable, the qualitative, the possible, the uncertainty” and the physical sciences – “the certainty and the temporal reversibility”. The concept of “uncertainty” which could be an example of bringing sciences together, as stated by Lissack (1999, p. 119): “Both complexity science and organization science have a common problem they wish to address: uncertainty”.

Complexity thinking is presented in the form of a new paradigm born both from the development and the limits of contemporary sciences. And we think that the paradigm of complexity seems more appropriate for studying culture in organizations, since it is not unaware of interference and interaction between human beings and to their organizational environment. “We can indeed fear that constructions which are either monistic or dualistic, analytical or synthetic, taxinomic or dialectical will in most cases only lead to exaggerate or underestimate the differences” (Wunenburger, 1990, p. 11). Morin (1986, p. 232) adds that complexity thinking is an approach which helps “to deal with interdependence, multidimensionality and paradox”. This approach perfectly joined the definition of the concept given by Sackmann on the cultural complexity quoted in the introduction. Morin insists on the fact that complexity is not only the problem of the object but also that of the method used to acquire knowledge about this object. Therefore, he proposes a method which requires “the formation, reformulation and full employment of a way of thinking which is at the same time dialogical, recursive and hologrammatic”. It are these basic principles which we will develop below.

What is complexity thinking?

The concepts of complexity thinking are different from positivistic epistemology. As stated by Bachelard (1934, p. 139), “There always comes a moment when one does not find it beneficial any more to seek the new on the traces of the old, where the scientific spirit can progress only while creating new methods”. Moreover, the complexity approach brings closer the scientific and philosophical disciplines and becomes one transdisciplinary discipline since it refuses the “parcelling out of the fundamental problems between the disciplines” (Le Monde, 2003).

In his interview with Benkirane (2003, pp. 23-6), Morin recalls the two organizing principles of thinking defined in his work, La Méthode, notably, “a principle of simplicity and a principle of complexity”. The first separates the objects of knowledge from their context whereas the other principle, even if it distinguishes the objects, interconnects them. For Morin, complexity is a way of thinking which includes concepts as uncertainty “because there cannot be total and absolute knowledge”, contradiction “forms of antagonisms between concepts”, and also applies to “men and the society”. Rather, “complexity is not the opposite of simplifying, it integrates this one” (Morin and Le Moigne, 1999, p. 256). In their study of complexity literature, Richardson and Cillers (2001, p. 8) mentioned that a number of schools of thinking are developing and that they differ substantially. Besides the strong and the soft complexity science there is a school which is called “complexity thinking”. “It involves a shift in philosophical attitude that might well put off practicing managers …”. According to this school, if ones assumes that organizations are indeed complex systems, a fundamental shift in the way sense is made of our surroundings is necessary (Baets, 1998, 2002)

The concept of complexity

Genelot (1998) sees in complexity a “major challenge of our time”. He defines the term complexity while not limiting it to only this aspect, as: “what escapes us, what we have difficulty with to understand and to control” (Genelot, 1998, p. 41). He tries to give a definition of the concept of complexity by using a descriptive approach of the characteristics. He distinguishes three levels of complexity, “the one which emerges from reality with its procession of the unforeseen, of the dubious, of the instable”, followed by second level of complexity, “the one of knowledge, that of the way we represent our reality and from which we work out our reactions” and finally the last level consisting of “the feed-back of our representations on reality” (Genelot, 1998, p. 70).

The notion of complexity

Le Moigne (1995) stresses systemic modelling: “a complex system is, by definition, a system which one holds for irreducible to a finite model, whatever the complexity and sophistication of this model, whatever its size, the number of its components, intensity of their interactions … The abstract notion of complexity implies that of unforeseeable factors, of plausible emergence of new elements and intrinsic properties which one holds for complex” (Le Moigne, 1995, p. 3). Further on, he concludes that “to understand and thus to give significance to a complex system, one must model it to build his intelligibility (comprehension)”.

Complexity thinking

Morin (1990) brings with his “paradigm of complexity” the conceptual framework to the complexity thinking. The traditional thinking is too simplifying to be satisfactory, as he explains, its ambition is limited to the control of reality, whereas that of the complexity thinking is “to account for the articulations between the disciplinary fields”. He defines complexity thinking as another way of thinking that does not seek to complicate but to open thinking towards other conceptual fields and to progress towards the comprehension of the complex. To understand complexity it is to know how to accept ambiguity, contradiction, the inaccuracy of the concepts and the phenomena and to accept the unexplainable (Morin, 1990, p. 50). For him, if complexity in the first place seems to belong to the quantitative, it does not, however, only comprise quantities of units and of interactions, it has in a certain way always something to do with likelihood. One cannot reduce complexity to uncertainty, complexity “is uncertainty within richly organised systems” (Morin, 1990, p. 49).

One can conclude with Morin and Le Moigne (1999, p. 261) that “complexity thinking is thinking which at the same time seeks to distinguish (but not to separate) and to connect”.

Complexity thinking and its principles

For better seizing the paradigm of complexity, Morin (1990, pp. 98-101) proposes three guiding principles which can help to think complexity, the dialogic principle, the hologrammic principle and the principle of recursivity:

      1.The dialogic principle that offers the opportunity to maintain duality (e.g. between subject and object or agency and structure) while at the same time transcending that duality and creating a unity of the whole.
      2.The principle of recursivity, in which causes simultaneously are effects. Individuals create the society which in turn creates the individuals. This is a recursive process, and as such this breaks with the idea of linearity and a causal linear relationship between input and output underlying traditional organizational thinking.
      3.The hologrammic principle which goes beyond reductionism, that only sees the parts, and holism, that only sees the whole. Holons or whole/parts are entities that are both wholes and parts of ever greater wholes, simultaneously and at all times.

Larrasquet (1999, p. 453) joins the paradigm of complexity, affirming that “complexity thinking requires to regard the problems of reference as fabrics of dynamic relations complex, bathing in the recursivity, the fractality, and the dialogy”. These problems are for him not more of the network type than of the vertical type. He does not regard these terms as being able “to be used to qualify exclusive forms of organization (hierarchical system, system network …)”.

Morin (1990, p. 176) explains the term “dialogic” in Science avec Conscience, by saying “that two logics, two principles are unified without the duality being lost in this unity”. He takes the example of the man who is “at the same time completely biological and completely cultural”.

Morin joins the dialogic principle to the hologrammic principle, since in a certain way the totality of the genetic information of the individual is in each cell, but that also “the society as a whole is present in our minds via the culture which trained and informed us” (Morin, 1990, p. 177). The third principle of complexity stated by Morin, the principle of recursivity, is for him also linked to the hologrammic principle. He stresses that this principle is the base even of the self-organization: “the recursive organization is the organization of which the effects and the products are necessary to its own causation and its own production” (Morin, 1990, p. 69).

Le Moigne (1990, p. 105) identifies principles which he regards as the bases of constructivist epistemologies. We will retain the “principle of representability”, which means the principle of the experiment of reality since it refers to our subject. Referring to work of Von Glasersfeld in The Construction of Knowledge in 1987, knowledge reflects “the organization of our representations of a world constituted by our experiments (our models of the world)”. This means that we will recognize our models, not as representations of reality but because they agree with our experience of reality.

In search of the fundamental principle of the organization, Larrasquet (1999, p. 453) proposes a “holistic complex approach” that respects two logics, which he names the “holon” of the organization: “it means the fundamental dialogic unit of two inseparable principles for comprehending and constructing an organization”. Wunenburger (1990, p. 17) adds that “the holon becomes thus a kind of new configuration of objects which as well challenges the analytical intelligence of the parts as the synthetic intelligence of amalgamated totalities”.

Larrasquet (1999, p. 458) sees in the organization the dialogy between “identity and distinctiveness”. Self-referencing is only conceivable in relation with others, there is no autonomy or conscience without relation to others. That does not have sense. According to him, to give sense, to make sense in the company, it is “a phenomenon which rests on two dimensions, a collective social dimension, and an individual dimension, which means a dimension of distinctiveness, opening, on the one hand, then a dimension of identity, particular closing on the other hand. These two levels are dialogically non-dissociable”.

What does complexity thinking mean for the cultural problematic in organizations?

By applying the concepts and principles of complexity thinking to the organizations, we can offer an new approach to think about culture in globalizing business world, and a link between individual, culture and organizations:

      • The dialogic principle – which permits the association of contradictory notions to conceive the same complex phenomenon – highlights the relationship individual and company. This is one of the principles guiding the cognitive process of complexity thinking. “Thus, the distinction of the individuals and their potentialities, is accompanied by a conjunction, setting in synergy of these elements with another logic, that of the company of which they form part” (

Genelot, 1998, p. 138).

      • The principle of recursivity is a concept of self-production and self-organization. Thus, individuals produce the organization by their interactions, but simultaneously, the organization produces the culture of the individuals. “The specific culture of a company concerns this recursive process: prior to the people who arrive in the company, the culture works them, and these people become in their turn carrying this culture” (

Genelot, 1998, p. 77).

    • In the hologrammic principle – in which not only the parts are present in the totality, but also the totality in the parts – we can see that the organization is present in all individual members, throughout its culture and norms.

Finally, the fundamental principle of the company – “sensmaking” – applied to the culture: we saw with Genelot (1998, p. 204) that our representations condition our future and that the cultural construction of the company passes by the expression of this future. Insofar as the company wants to imagine its culture, to affirm its values, it must associate it with all the people who make it up, “because what is significant in the complex universe of the company, it is that each one is carrying the whole, in the image of a hologram”. This implication, this engagement of the people by favouring the intelligence, the creativity,Larrasquet (1999, p. 505) sees there a way of opening to them the possibility of building the sense.

However, Morin, in his interview with Benkirane (2003, p. 27), says to us “the principles of the complexity thinking cannot dictate a knowledge program to you, they can just dictate a strategy”. The strategy remains the keyword, because only strategy makes it possible to advance in the doubt and it can be modified as one advances in the investigation. This word strategy is taken again by Larrasquet (1999, p. 289) who does not see any more the practical interest for the organization of a “general strategy made in advance”. To apply the principles of the complexity thinking remains the work of the researcher who adopts a strategy, “it means a guide in the uncertainty”, adapted to his objective and not to “a universal method” (Morin and Le Moigne, 1999, p. 203).


In this contribution we have proposed another epistemology to approach the cultural complexity of international organizations through the complexity thinking paradigm. First, we have argued with Morin and Le Moigne (1999, p. 266) that “complexity thinking is not reduced to either science or philosophy, but allows their communication by operating the shuttle between the two”. Second, we have outlined the concepts and principles which forms the framework of this paradigm, and we have given some examples in applying them. We are convinced that further research on theses issues related to the culture of organizations using this theoretical approach will be usefully to learn about the cultural complexity of the globalization business world.

In this paper an attempt is made to discuss the conditions for organizational learning, rather than the process itself. The paradigm of complexity thinking “la pensée complexe” is very instrumental for this improved understanding.



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