The edge of knowing holds great relevance for the leaders of many organizations that would be labeled postmodern in this set of essays—for these organizations are poised on the edge of chaos. This is not chaos, as it is usually defined in terms of anarchy or complete disorganization. Rather, as this term was originally being used, chaos is defined as a state of unpredictability and complexity—as a system in which order and disorder are in interplay with one another. These important insights regarding chaos were first offered in a burst of articles and books appearing during the late 1980s and early 1990s (for example, Gleick, 1987; Briggs and Peat, 1989).
More recently, during the 1900s and early 21st Century, this state has been reframed as complexity and attention turned to the nature of dynamic, adaptive systems (Kaufmann, 1996; Miller and Page, 2007: Page, 2011) In such a system, the capacity for knowing is maximized—as is the capacity for creativity (Stacey, 1996). In a complex, adaptive system, there are many “teachable moments” and opportunities for dramatic, second-order learning and change (Argyris and Schon, 1978).
An additional perspective will also be offered in this set of essays. The seemingly complex and chaotic nature of contemporary, postmodern organizations may be neither a transitional state in the life of many contemporary organizations, nor a more permanent state of affairs. The growing emphasis on postmodernism in contemporary organizations may instead be simply a part of our growing awareness of and insight into the way(s) in which organizations have always run in our world—or at least the way in which they have operated for the past two centuries.
The basic condition of all organizations may have always been on the edge of order and chaos. Perhaps, as some system theorists would have us believe, the primary function of any organization (or any human enterprise, for that matter) is to snatch structure and order out of the mouth of the dragon of chaos. System theorists described this as the process of entropy—the tendency of all systems to move toward disorder or chaos (the second law of thermodynamics). Many systems in our world, it would appear, can be best described as entities that hover on the edge of or move back and forth between states of order and chaos. Our journey through premodern, modern and postmodern societies, in this set of essays, will help us gain greater insight regarding how organizations (and social systems in general) have changed and have, at the same time, remained unchanged—hovering on the edge.