Organizational theory has construed complexity as an objective characteristic of either the structure or the behavior of an organization. We argue that, in order to further our understanding, complexity should be understood in terms of the human cognition of a structure or behavior. This cognitive twist is illustrated by means of two theoretical approaches, whose relationship is discussed.
The aim of this paper is to argue that complexity should neither be defined nor measured in terms of its source, be it an objectively given feature of the structure or of the behavior of an organization, but instead in terms of its effects on human cognition. Organization theorists have been careful in pointing to the decision context within which the concept of complexity plays a role. Briefly, complexity as numerosity, diversity, and unpredictability matters because of the increasing demands it imposes on decision makers concerned with attaining overall organizational effectiveness. But such demands are cognitive in nature. It therefore only seems natural to take the analysis one step further by detaching the notion of complexity from its objective source and instead attaching it to its consequence on the cognitive effort exerted by the decision maker to come to grips with her decision problem. That is, an organization is complex to the extent that a human being – e.g., an organizational designer or an outside observer – has to exert a certain degree of cognitive effort in coming to grips with a decision problem.