Patterned Chaos in Human Resource Management

Three professionals — an architect, an accountant, and a human resource professional —were contemplating a profound existential question. What, besides the obvious, was the oldest profession?

The architect spoke first: “God created the world in six days, and that took a master design. So, obviously, architecture is the oldest profession.”

“Not at all,” replied the accountant. “You misunderstand what God really did. What He did in those six days was to create order out of chaos. And that is what accountants do, so accountancy is obviously the oldest profession.”

But the human resource professional had the last word: “And who do you think created the chaos?”

I would like to suggest that organizations need more chaos, at least the kind of patterned chaos that is described by the new science of that name. And further, most human resource professionals do not create enough of it.

I am not a mathematician, and I do not understand much about the underpinnings of the science of chaos. It is hard for me to imagine how scientists deal with such complex phenomena. But what has been written for the layman and portrayed on TV is quite compelling. Take, for example, the description given by the physicist Joseph Ford of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who was an early proponent and contributor to chaos theory. He talked about “dynamics freed at last from the shackles of order and predictability,” of “liberated systems” with “exciting variety, richness of choice, a cornucopia of opportunity.”1 This description comes close to my vision of the new organizational world.

One aspect of chaos theory that has particular resonance in current organizational concerns is popularly called the butterfly effect. This effect, more correctly known as sensitivity to initial conditions, refers to the phenomenon that a butterfly flapping its wings over Tokyo can affect New York weather some time hence. Similarly, small organizational decisions, often about highly circumscribed concerns, can have profound effects on larger problems that emerge considerably later — problems whose relevance to the initial decision is buried in the organization’s ordinary practices.

For example, engineering companies often hire many engineers at the beginning of a project, but when the project ends they are left with underutilized and demoralized employees. A possible solution is to hire more technicians. They can do some of the “engineering” work, and, when demand declines, their skills are more easily transferred to the ensuing maintenance jobs.

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1. Joseph Ford, quoted in:

J. Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), p. 306.

2. This effect has been well documented by Juliet Schor in her book. See:

J. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure(New York: Basic Books, 1991).

3. L. Bailyn, “Toward the Perfect Workplace?” Communications of the ACM 32 (1989): 460–471.

4. A. Andrews, “Flexible Working Schedules in High-Commitment Organizations: A Challenge to the Emotional Norms?” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, Working Paper No. 3329-91-BPS, August 1991).

5. D.C. Kinlaw, Coaching for Commitment: Managerial Strategies for Obtaining Superior Performance (San Diego, California: University Associates, 1989), p. 5.

6. J.L. Bradach, “The Organization and Management of Chains: Owning, Franchising, and the Plural Form” (Boston: Harvard Business School, Doctoral Diss., 1992).

7. A. Andrews and L. Bailyn, “Segmentation and Synergy: Two Models of Linking Work and Family,” in Work, Family, and Masculinities, ed. J.C. Hood (Newbury Park, California: Sage, forthcoming).