How will APIs change the way organizations work? What is it that we do when we use APIs? How do APIs change the ecosystems we interact with?
We believe that it is essential to understand organizations as complex adaptive systems: a socio-technical amalgamation of people and technology, that show parallels with the biological systems around us. Complexity awareness gives us an adaptive perspective–a model of models–that allows for the emergence of novelty.
To gain this understanding we organize a range of activities in 2022: we will have a series of articles, conversations on the API resilience podcast, and a dedicated event series on the role of deliberate complexity in the digital service economy.
What is complexity?
We all have a visceral experience of complexity, we live it and contribute to it. It is uncomfortable to talk about complexity because it is like looking into the abyss of uncertainty. Although we have the experience with the non-linear, we learnt that analysis gives us full predictive power. That once you analysed the components of a system, you will know how it will behave. But if we are fully honest with ourselves, that is not how the world works.
According to Wikipedia, Complexity theory is (as of 10th of February 2022)
“the use of the study of complexity systems in the field of strategic management and organizational studies. It draws from research in the natural sciences that examines uncertainty and non-linearity. Complexity theory emphasizes interactions and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change systems. While it proposes that systems are unpredictable, they are also constrained by order-generating rules.”
What makes complexity theory sometimes frustrating is that one of its core underlying principles–at least in our understanding–is that there are no universally applicable models. There is an interdependence between the observer, the world, and the model through which the observer interacts with the world. Therefore:
- Any model needs to be contextualized: you cannot in good faith just mimic a “best practice” of one organization and expect it to work without adjustments in another organization.
- Any model we use needs to be monitored for its continuing applicability in a given context. As the world evolves, even as models are gaining acceptance from a wider group of people, the domain in which a model can be used, shifts. Sometimes it gains predictive power and sometimes it loses predictive power.
That is why we see complexity theory as a metamodel of how models work and evolve. Complexity theory takes away certainty: you cannot forever simply follow the mental models you have once established. At first that seems frightening, but it is an opportunity to be less wrong: start using models and best practices in a more deliberate and adaptive way.
How can API programs benefit from complexity awareness?
Here are three ideas we derived from complexity theory that can help you on your API journey.
1. APIs are about scaling AND differentiation:
An API program can start on the business side, or the IT side, but ultimately will need to build a bridge between the economy of scale and the economy of differentiation that the various departments in an organization run on.
2. Complexity when applied deliberately can be a powerful source of value:
Any activity that can be codified and reduced to a product eventually becomes commoditised. Some of the most valuable and resilient businesses have found a source of complexity that they address through their service offering. It is through the adaptiveness and continuous learning of their employees, that they offer a way to address the relentless change their customers need to deal with.
3. APIs are an interface between sociotechnical systems:
While it is tempting to see software artifacts as tools that solve problems, it is important to remember that tools are useless without people who have the competencies to use them and a purpose they want to fulfill with them. When we use interfaces to hide the complexity of sociotechnical systems, it becomes even more important to remember the dignity of the underlying living systems, or risk massive disruptions when unexpected behaviour emerges. We objectify sociotechnical systems at our own peril.
APIs are signal boundary systems, that enable organizations to become more adaptive through the deliberate use of complexity. Why we think so? An introduction to the Stacey matrix, internal variety, and how APIs cause a dynamic decoupling on a global scale.
Do you want to know more about how complexity science can help us to build better social and technical systems? We are planning a conference series dedicated to the topic.
All Pronovix publications are the fruit of a team effort, enabled by the research and collective knowledge of the entire Pronovix team. Our ideas and experiences are greatly shaped by our clients and the communities we participate in.
Kristof van Tomme
Kristof Van Tomme is an open source strategist and architect. He is the CEO and co-founder of Pronovix. He’s got a degree in bioengineering and is a regular speaker at conferences in the API, developer relations, and technical writing communities. He is the host of the Developer Success & the Business of APIs and the API Resilience podcasts.