Friday, September 26, 2008

The Global Financial System

The current financial crisis provides a useful learning opportunity for all organizations as they consider their risk of a catastrophic failure of any kind - be it physical, technical, or organizational.

The global financial system is a good example of a complex system, as first defined and described by sociologist Charles Perrow. Complex systems are vulnerable to catastrophic failure, according to Perrow, if they have two attributes: high interactive complexity and tight coupling. By interactive complexity, he means that the system has many elements that interact in ways that are hard to predict and know in advance. By tight coupling, he means that different elements of an organizational system are highly interdependent and closely linked to one another, such that a change in one area quickly triggers changes in other aspects of the system. If we have learned anything over these past few weeks, it is that the global financial system exhibits high interactive complexity and tight coupling.

In a system with these attributes, large-scale failures result from a series of small errors and failures, rather than a single root cause. These small problems often cascade to create a catastrophe. Accident investigators in fields such as commercial aviation, the military, and medicine have shown that a chain of events and errors typically leads to a particular disaster. We see the same thing here with the global financial system. A problem that began with failures in the subprime mortgage market has cascaded to cause huge disruptions in many different parts of the global financial system and the economy more broadly.

Organizations of all kinds should take note. Do they operate systems with high interactive complexity and tight coupling? Could a small failure cascade to create a chain of errors that leads to major catastrophe? Every organization should look in the mirror and examine its vulnerability in light of these concepts.