What can you do when your research team says, “This is way too complex.”
When your government agency or university laboratory looks to innovate in a world where multiple/large data inputs are coming on line, how can you stay ahead of the inherent complexity of the systems you are creating/interrogating? One way to look at this problem is through Ashby’s principle/law of requisite variety. A principle of cybernetic management, requisite variety notes that unless the control system has at least the variety of the environment it controls, it will fail. Which actually means that some part of the environment will be controlled elsewhere. Elsewhere is also where innovation happens; because unless you can corral the inherent variety of the problem you face, it will seem too complex for your team to innovate a response (Kofman ). You can either go out and hire a bigger team, or you can borrow enough requisite variety just long enough to bring your own team up to speed. That is a great use for a virtual organization (VO).
Theorists of knowledge management have applied Ashby’s law in various modes, including a thread of interest in what is called a “learning organization” and mode of business communications management known as “systems thinking.” [There is a great amount of information about this available at the Society for Organizational Learning http://www.solonline.org/.] The point they make is that the team you build to tackle a tough problem needs to have enough of a portfolio of knowledge and skills to address all parts of the problem. Not only that, but they need to communicate their skills and knowledge to one another so that each team member shares in this collective intelligence. Andrew Van de Ven put it this way, “Requisite variety is more nearly achieved by making environmental scanning a responsibility of all unit members, and by recruiting personnel within the innovation unit who understand and have access to each of the key environmental stakeholder groups or issues that affect the innovation’s development.” (Van de Ven, 600).
Virtual organizations include online communities, research collaboratories, open source software programmer collectives, and other groups in a great variety of arenas and professions. What they offer is an open network of common interest and complementary talents. When your business or agency is looking to innovate in a world where data are more plentiful than insights (Abbott, 114) then it makes great sense, in terms of time and effort, to join a VO and gain enough requisite variety to conquer complexity and kickstart some innovation.
Abbott, Mark R. (2009) “A New Path for Science?” in The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery. Hey, Tony, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, eds. Pp. 111-116. Redmond: Microsoft Research.
Fred Kofman  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ARZBxIzsKk&feature=relmfu
Van de Ven, Andrew H. (1986) “Central Problems in the Management of Innovation.” Management Science. Vol. 32. No. 5. (May.) pp. 590-607.