Complexity: Absolute or Relative?

I spent the last few days in Santa Fe, absorbed in discussions of complexity, with particular emphasis on healthcare delivery.  I have delved into this topic for quite some time. Three decades ago, we published our studies on the complexity of troubleshooting – figuring out the source of unfortunate symptoms, e.g., why your car won’t start.

Sponsors of our research asked us to devise a metric for the complexity of a troubleshooting task, which they intended to use to match to the complexity processing abilities of maintenance personnel.  Pursuit of this goal led us to conclude that complexity is related to the intent of the person asking the question or performing the task, as well as the knowledge and skills of this person.

To illustrate, let’s say you purchased a Boeing 747 to use as a paperweight.  From this perspective, this complicated airplane is just a large mass, pretty useful for keeping errant papers on a very large and structurally sufficient desk.  In contrast, if you made this purchase with the intent of operating and maintaining the aircraft, the Boeing 747 is much more complex than your unwieldy paperweight.

This insight leads to a fundamental conclusion.  Complexity has to be defined in terms of a relationship between an observer and an entity.  The observer’s intentions, knowledge, and skills frame the assessment of the complexity of the entity.  Thus, complexity is relative rather than absolute.  Consequently, for example, we can only assess the complexity of a troubleshooting task relative to the personnel involved in the task.

I have discussed this conclusion in many of my talks over the past ten years or so.  Roughly 90% of the people with some level of expertise in the topic agree with me.  The other 10% say something like, “What you are saying makes sense, but what about real complexity?”  These people are usually physicists who firmly believe in the absolute nature of complexity.

Many of those researching complexity construct network diagrams of the elements and relationships among elements of engineered, organizational, and natural systems of interest.  They calculate various metrics associated with these network diagrams and then argue that these metrics reflect the inherent complexity of the systems of interest.  I have done this as well, with the explicit acknowledgement that these network models reflect my intentions, for instance, to predict the difficulty of driving in different urban environments.

There are no intention-free models.  Every model is constructed with the intent to analyze, assess, or predict some set of phenomena.  Any properties of these models used as complexity metrics reflect the intentions of the modeler(s).  This is as essential today as it was for Newton, Darwin, and Einstein in past centuries.  Absolute complexity is a chimera.

Why You Hate Your Airline

The October issue of Consumer Reports outlines “Secrets to Stress-Free Flying.”  This 14-page article provides an interesting history of the airline industry, including the forces that drove your once loved airline to become an object of intense scorn and hatred for most passengers.

Over recent years, the airlines have refined their strategy for making record profits. Charge as much as possible, squeeze passengers into smaller and smaller spaces — which poses medical risks (see Consumer Reports article) — provide as little service as possible, make passengers pay for almost every breath they take in flight, and smile while they say they care about passengers.

I don’t think we should re-regulate the airlines, but they should be forced to pay for the problems they impose on passengers.  For example, they should pay you when they waste your time.  How about $100 per passenger for every hour they are late. This includes delays for mechanical problems, crew complications, and inclement weather.

Airline executives will complain that delays are seldom their fault. This is akin to shipping executives complaining about all the water, or trucking executives complaining about the traffic.  My answer is simple. If you don’t know how to run an airline, get out of the business. Flip burgers. Mow grass. But stay away from airports.

Cultures of Compliance

I have encountered many organizations, mainly in government and academia, where compliance with policies, procedures, and norms became the primary organizational objective. Producing useful outcomes became secondary, almost a nuisance because production took resources away from compliance.

This becomes an almost insurmountable problem when the organization is laced with administrative incompetence. Perhaps well-intended but fundamentally incompetent administrators force compliance on those who would have been producing useful outcomes.

This is further complicated by fragmented and antiquated information systems. One measure of this is the number of times you have to enter your user name and password to accomplish one task. Another measure is the number of times you have to start all over because the system does not recognize the computer they bought for you and told you to use.

The ultimate complication is when the legal function is in charge.  They want to make sure that the organization cannot be blamed and held accountable for anything.   This objective is, of course, much easier if the organization avoids doing anything.

I once asked a Chief Legal Counsel if her compliance job would not be easier if the organization provided no services, accepted no monies from sponsors, and created nothing of value. She replied, “It certainly would minimize our risks.”

I then asked, “How could the organization survive if it provided no value to anyone?”  She responded, “That not my responsibility.  My job is to maximize compliance so as to minimize risks. You need to talk to the President if you are concerned about the value we provide.”

She was right. Her function was risk management, not value creation. I talked to the President, but he was all hype and slogans. His dominant goal was assuring a financial surplus each year that got bigger the following year.

I then talked to the organization’s equivalent of production workers. They were frustrated by increasingly tight budgets, driven by the goal for surpluses.  They were angry about all the time they had to devote to compliance paperwork, often entering the same information into multiple information systems.

Morale was abysmal across the organization. In the executive suite, however, everything was upbeat. All the slogans were prominent. Glossy brochures touted the smoothly running organization.   Everything was aligned for an unfortunate surprise.

The Disruption of Autonomous Vehicles

Many pundits argue that driverless cars will soon be here.  You can argue with the timelines they articulate, but it is difficult to disagree with the distinct possibility of the technology eventually maturing and becoming an increasing portion of the vehicles on the road.  This technology will be truly disruptive.

There will be the benefits of a more efficient transportation system, dramatically fewer accidents, and commute times spent being productive or at least being more relaxing.  There will, however, be costs associated with the technology and infrastructure needed to support it.  There will still be some accidents, although the technology, unlike human drivers, will be continually improved as lessons are learned.

Many of the disruptions will be byproducts of these innovations.  As accidents disappear, the most profitable segment of the insurance industry will wither.  As car and truck services replace individual ownership, vehicles will be used 24 x 7 and the number of vehicles will steadily decrease.  Used cars will disappear, eliminating roughly three quarters of the car loan business.  The after market for vehicle add-ons will disappear.

Truck drivers will become rare, as will drivers of taxis, limos, and other car services.  The autonomous car service industry will have their own service operations, replacing corner filling stations and car washes.  The need for parking places will plummet, proving real estate for other purposes but also significantly reducing municipal revenues.  The need for traffic police and the issuing of speeding tickets will disappear, also reducing municipal revenues.

I have read that as many as 5,000,000 jobs will be eliminated.  At the same time, millions of new jobs will be created, but probably not for the same people.  This has happened before.  Electricity disrupted the marketplace in the late 19th century and automobiles dramatically disrupted horse-drawn transportation in the early 20th century.  The acreage and labor associated with feeding and caring for horses plummeted.  The pollution of horse manure did as well.

The process of one or more technologies disrupting a market is often termed “creative destruction.”  The creation of innovative new ways of doing things results in destroying the old ways.  This process can be very painful for those skilled in the old ways.  Efforts and resources have to be devoted to gaining new skills.  Over time, the new ways flourish and the overall economy greatly benefits.

Clock Speed in Academia

An industry executive that chaired an advisory board at a major research university once commented to me that academia’s unit of time is the semester.  “When a faculty member says he will get back to me right away, he means by the end of the semester.”

We measure performance of computers in cycles per second, manufacturing processes in cycles per hour or day, and academia in cycles per semester.  Classes are taught once per semester.  Research papers are produced roughly once per semester.  Students graduate once per semester. Proposals for funding are typically due once per semester.  Thus, it is rather natural to have a metric of cycles per semester.

Each semester appears to be roughly four months in duration.  Nothing can be accomplished in the summer months because quorums are impossible.  Little can be done from mid December to mid January due to holiday plans and celebration recovery.  Once Fall and Spring breaks are subtracted, as well as numerous holidays, each semester ends up having about three months of useful time.

I won’t detail here what needs to be done – see my recent book if this is of interest*.  The overall set of things is called faculty governance, which includes evaluating and approving courses and curricula, reviewing and recommending (or not) promotions and tenure, and endless revisions of the faculty handbook.  Most faculty members do not enjoy this, but do not want anyone else doing it.

A committee that meets once per semester is considered reasonable.  More than once per semester is judged outstanding.  Committee membership often changes every year, so a particular set of people have two chances to accomplish something.  The next set of members of the committee may be such that they undo what the previous set did.  At the very least, the next set is usually unaware of the previous set’s decisions.

Difficulties arise when decisions about classes, research, proposals, etc. need to happen faster.  Most faculty members will do their best to meet hard deadlines, e.g., proposals not accepted after March 15th.  On the other hand, soft deadlines, e.g., let’s try to get a first draft done by next Monday, are difficult for many faculty members to understand.  Hence, soft deadlines are often ignored.

Faculty members with earlier careers in business, or those like me who took extended leaves of absence to found and grow businesses, are often frustrated with the cycles per semester clock speed.  They feel that it takes far too long to accomplish things.  They are astonished by faculty members who have spent their whole careers in academia and see the stumbling progress as fine indeed.

*Rouse, W.B. (2016). Universities as Complex Enterprises: How Academia Works, Why It Works These Ways, and Where the University Enterprise Is Headed.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

Student Debt and Jobs

The August 2016 issue of Consumer Reports summarizes a much longer report from on student debt.  Their headline is 42 million people owe $1.3 trillion.  Their survey found that “45% of the people with student loan debt said that college was not worth the cost.  Of those who said college wasn’t worth the money, 38% didn’t graduate, 69% have had trouble making loan payments, and 78% earn less than $50,000 per year.”

The US Department of Education holds 93% of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding loans, making it one of the world’s largest banks.  They outsource debt collection to private firms, many of which are owned by JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup.   These debt collection firms pursue the 7.6 million borrowers in default, making more than $2 billion in commissions this year.

Of course, as noted in my last post, the whole process is driven by spiraling costs of higher education, which is driven, in turn, by academia’s “cost disease,” that results in cost increases far exceeding inflation.  Universities are unwilling and unable to control costs, in large part due to the bloating of administrative and support functions.

The June 25th edition of The Economist includes a special report on artificial intelligence.  They project that jobs such as telemarketers, accountants and auditors, retail sales people, technical writers, real estate agents, and word processors and typists will likely disappear.  I have reviewed many articles on the top ten jobs of the future.  They all require technical skills.  Many require advanced degrees.

These two trends are on a collision course — higher education that is unaffordable and jobs that require higher education.  Further, as noted in my last post, the third trend is younger people who cannot afford to repay their debts, cannot afford to buy a house, cannot afford to get married, and cannot afford to have children.  The good news is that JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, et al. made $2 billion in commissions.

Higher Education Bubble

The steadily escalating costs of a college education coupled with spiraling mountains of student debts cannot be sustained.  Universities are unwilling and unable to control costs, in large part due to the bloating of administrative and support functions (Rouse, 2016).

A great example is the University of California System where, excluding the number of faculty members, there is roughly one administrator per student.  The daughter of a friend enrolled at UCLA last year.  I suggested that she ask to meet her administrator.

These bloated costs result in constantly increasing tuition, fees, and room and board.  Another friend has a 12 year old who hopes to go to Stanford in six years.  This friend is planning on Stanford costing $100,000 per year by then, and saving accordingly.  This is all but impossible for the vast majority of families.

In a recent meeting of academic health centers, the impact of healthcare reform on physician salaries was discussed.  Physicians’ pieces of the pie are likely to get smaller when payment for outcomes replaces fees for services.  With lower incomes, physicians are unlikely to be willing to finish their education with $300,000 of student debt.

More typical student debts are much smaller, in the range of $30-50,000, with repayment amounting to roughly $500 per month over ten years.  Ben Casselman (2016) reports, “New graduates’ wages are rising faster than those of most other groups; the typical recent college graduate earned $13 an hour.”  $26,000 per year translates into a bit over $20,000 after taxes, social security, Medicare, etc.  So these new graduates will need roughly 30% of their after-tax income to repay their loans.

This leaves about $1,200 per month for everything else.  The possibility of buying a home disappears.  Marriage may be avoided or long delayed.  Children are unaffordable.  Without owning homes or having children, young people are not buying appliances, carpeting, strollers, etc. There are frequent reports of data that portray these trends.

How will the higher education bubble burst?  I think it will be a combination of technological disruption and changing values and norms. Online education, in its many forms, will continually get better.  Studies will eventually show that online education yields superior results to traditional education in many, but not all, areas.  In a recent analysis, I show how this could result in the total cost of a college degree being $16,000 (Rouse, 2016).

Values and norms will change in the sense that employers will come to accept credentials earned online as equivalent to those earned in traditional education.  In parallel, accreditation bodies will adapt to these trends rather then thwart them.  These changes will not happen all at once.  Hybrid offerings might, for example, involve years 1-2 online and years 3-4 on campus.  Those who drop out in the first two years will have $4-8,000 of debt, at most.

What happens to all the bricks and mortar of higher education when on campus enrollments steadily decrease?  One idea is to turn facilities into retirement homes.  It has often been noted that retiring in a college community has several attractions, one of which is the possibility of taking classes and perhaps earning credits in literature, history, political science or art.  The growing demand for education by much older students is another scenario that I have recently explored (Rouse, 2016).


Casselman, B. (2016). This Year’s College Grads Are The Luckiest In A Decade,

Rouse, W.B. (2016). Universities as Complex Enterprises: How Academia Works, Why It Works These Ways, and Where the University Enterprise is Headed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

The Allure of Quests

I really enjoy stories, and particularly movies, where an older man and younger woman are on a quest – perhaps to solve a mystery, right a wrong, or flee an evil force.  They are thrown together and their shared aspirations drive them closer as they work together to pursue their quest.  They learn from each other, despite occasional conflicts, and eventually succeed.

Movies that come to mind are North by Northwest (Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint), Charade (Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn), and The Big Sleep (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall).  There is an emergent romantic undertone in these stories, but the plot is dominated by the quest.  The older man helps the younger woman to achieve her goals, in these examples, stopping the bad guys, finding the murderers, and saving her sister from her fate.  Once the quest is successful, the romantic undertones take center stage as the story ends.

I think that what appeals to me is the idea of shared aspirations to achieve substantial goals involving some risks of failure.  The couple – actually a team more than a couple – support each other to contribute to progress toward the goal.  Conflicts of priorities and personalities emerge along the way, but the importance of the quest helps them to move beyond these conflicts. Respect for each other’s role and competency grows.  They become truly interdependent.  And, of course, the team achieves its goal, with warm affection as the immediate reward.

It seems to me that male-female relationships are much richer when there is a shared sense of purpose beyond going to respective jobs, keeping house, paying the bills, eating and drinking, and taking holidays and vacations.  Raising children can, of course, provide a shared purpose, but also can tend to feel like another job with enormous responsibilities to buy more and more things, oversee schooling and homework, address logistics of extracurricular activities, and save for higher education.  The idea that your only purpose is to foster the next generation has always felt rather limiting to me.

Yet, quests that benefit humankind are very appealing and, certainly, raising children to become good citizens fits in here.  Plus, the joys of seeing your progeny succeed in life are difficult to overestimate.  Nevertheless, the idea that your primary role is to prepare the next generation to accomplish what you could not seems like passing the buck – why couldn’t you do it?  My sense is that you can have both great accomplishments and great kids.  In fact, your kids can be even greater if they experience what you accomplish.

A Student’s Questions

One of the PhD students in the School of Systems and Enterprises asked me a few questions after reading my March 15th blog post on “Thoughts on Teaching, Classrooms, and Computers.” She wanted to know what I would do if I was now a PhD student. Before getting to her specific questions, I need to cover two preliminaries.

First, I often get questions from students who are trying to decide on future directions. I have a simple, yet I think powerful, answer.  “Identify a scarce skill that is highly valued and you love doing.”

If the skill you love exercising, is abundant in the population, it will not be highly compensated. If the skill is not highly valued, it will not be highly compensated. Of course, you may be satisfied with modest compensation.

Second, I am rather biased toward recommending STEM fields, particularly engineering. My experiences are that engineering prepares people for an amazing range of futures. People with well-honed problem solving skills can succeed in many arenas.

Now, let’s consider her questions.  How would you choose your dissertation research topic?   Choose what fascinates you, but be realistic. You need to become an expert at something that society cares about. This still leaves a wide range of possibilities.

What courses would you take?  Required courses are, obviously, required. Add courses needed to directly support your research. Throw in a couple for fun, for example, economic history or creative writing.  The payoffs from such courses will surprise you.

What extracurricular activities would best advance your career?  Such activities only count, career wise, if they are related to your research. I chose woodworking, hiking, and travel, but not to advance my career.  Keep in mind that you are creating you, not just your resume.

What internships would best advance your career?  Again, these only count if they are related to your research. On the other hand, paid internships (or just plain jobs) can create a rainy day fund while you are completing your degree program.  I always liked real hands-on work, e.g., plumbing, or real technical work, e.g., engineering analyses.

Overall, I am driven by problems that I want to understand and contribute to solving. I am problem-oriented. In contrast, some people are method-oriented. They look for problems that are good fits for their chosen methods.  They often have to scale down problems to fit their method. In contrast, I often have to scale up methods to fit my problem of interest.

Career success is rather different for these two perspectives. Method-oriented people are judged by their abilities to extend methods in some substantial way, often with associated theorems and proofs.  The domain of application is of less importance.

Problem-oriented people tend to immerse themselves in the domains of the problems of interest. They are judged by their contributions to solving problems in these domains. This often involves providing empirical evidence of the impacts of their contributions.  Advancing methods is secondary.

Keep in mind that the world needs both Newtons and Darwins.  If you are problem person like me, sailing the enterprise seas, you are glad that someone else is forging the next generation methods.  Problem people are often really good at formulating problems, but given a valid formulation, the method people can be invaluable.

Thoughts on Teaching, Classrooms, and Computers

The purpose of teaching is to enable learning and, over time, mastery.  Classrooms and computers – smart boards, workstations, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. – are enablers of learning.  The most important enabler is student engagement.  This can be a challenge as ubiquitous digital devices often lead to significant student multi-tasking, much of it irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is abundant potential variety in terms of modes of delivery that might enhance engagement. However, “Didactic teaching remains the pedagogical mainstay of many traditional classrooms and traditional teachers. It is the pedagogy of instruction and immutable facts, of authority and telling, and of right and wrong answers – it is teacher-centered and values learners who sit still and listen quietly and attentively, passively accepting the teacher as the knower and expert, both the source of knowledge and judge-jury of knowing.” (New Learning, 2016).

I have found in large undergraduate courses (60-80 students) that traditional didactic teaching can prompt disengagement, especially when lecture notes or slides are provided and the lecture closely follows these notes or slides.  What seems to work better is the addition of real-world examples and stories (not on the notes or slides) that illustrate the use or misuse of the material being presented.   In a recent experiment, we announced at the beginning of the lecture that there would a quiz on the lecture at the end of the class, i.e., 45 minutes later.  Students’ digital devices were little used during those 45 minutes.

In graduate courses, typically much smaller (8-12 students), my experience is that engagement increases if the students do more of the talking.  In three cases, I designed the course and compiled the course materials, but had the students give the lectures.  The students found this very rewarding.  Rather serendipitously, I learned to always have one of the better students lecture first as this sets the benchmark for the rest of the students.  By “better” I mean motivated, organized, and articulate, as well as with a sense of humor, rather than the student with the highest grade point average.

Table 1 contrasts didactic and Socratic teaching in terms of passive versus active learning.  Of course, there are more than two choices; there is a continuum.  The experiences mentioned above suggest that I have achieved greater student engagement when classes are more towards the Socratic end on the continuum.  How can the use of smart boards, workstations, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. enhance this approach?

The most ubiquitous use of computer technology is computer-projected PowerPoint slides.  This saves the lecturer having to write notes on a whiteboard or, in rare cases, a blackboard.  This means that the lecturer spends more time looking at the class rather than the board.  This enables much quicker detection of student disengagement.




[Shared Inquiry]

Passive Learning

Active Learning

1. Teacher centered: based on the assumption that the teacher is the primary agent in learning. 1. Problem centered: based on the assumption that the student is the primary agent in learning.
2. Teacher’s role: to impart the results of experience, personal study, and reflection. 2. Teacher’s role: to uncover the question that the answer hides. To be a co-learner.
3. Primarily deductive: the usual methods are lecture, story telling, use of analogy, and aphorism. 3. Primarily inductive: the usual methods discussion, dialogue, and problem solving.
4. Test of truth: authority and experience. 4. Test of truth: reason and evidence.
5. Learning is the reception of ideas. 5. Learning is a conflict of ideas: a thesis, antithesis, and a synthesis that results in new knowledge (Hegel).
6. Student’s role: to be passive, open, receptive, trusting, and unquestioning. 6. Student’s role: to be active, questioning, critical, and discriminating–learning to trust one’s own judgment (independent thinking).
7. Evaluation is factual recall of data–commonly in the form of objective tests–right and wrong answers. 7. Evaluation is application of understanding interpretation of data–commonly in an essay, speech, journal, or a review.
8. Ultimate goal: wisdom viewed as the internalization of truths and beliefs. 8. Ultimate goal: wisdom viewed as an informed ignorance (knowing what one does not know–the Socratic paradox).


Table 1. Didactic vs. Socratic Teaching (College English, 2016)

The downsides of PowerPoint, or equivalent, includes tendencies to express all ideas as bullet points, cram too much text into slides, and use colors combinations that are unreadable, e.g., dark blue lettering on a black background.  In general, PowerPoint helps the speaker more than the audience.  The best illustration of this is when speakers literally read their slides.  In general, most PowerPoint presentations represent little more than computer-aided didactic teaching.

Hands-on interactive demonstrations can help to engage students, particularly when the students are the creators of the demonstrations.  Conservations about real-life experiences can also be engaging.  Teachers’ expositions of real-life applications of the material being discussed in class usually cause greater student attention, particularly when they can ask questions about the experiences, and especially when they can discuss their related experiences.  Students’ shared demonstrations and experiences are often of great value to other students.

How is this different for online versus face-to-face classrooms?  To address this question, we need to differentiate between synchronous online courses — where faculty members and students are online together at the same time — versus courses where people’s presence is asynchronous.  There are several commercial platforms that can support synchronous classes to enable sharing of materials and discussions where people can see each other.

Asynchronous courses, almost by definition, have to be more scripted or canned.  This raises the question of the extent to which asynchronous courses can be fully interactive and reflect good educational practices.  Chickering and Gamson (1987) discuss seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education:

  • Encourages contacts between student and faculty
  • Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  • Uses active learning techniques
  • Gives prompt feedback
  • Emphasizes time on task
  • Communicates high expectations
  • Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

Roblyer and Ekhami (2000) have developed a rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning.  The rubric focuses on five aspects of distance learning:

  • Social/rapport building
  • Instructional design
  • Interactivity of technology
  • Learner engagement
  • Instructor engagement

They provide scales for each of these aspects where the assessment can provide up to five points per aspect and 25 points overall.

Wagner (1997) discusses interactions in terms of those between students and instructors, students and other students, and students and content.  She argues that interactions must change learners and move leaners toward an action state of goal attainment.  Interactions can increase participation, enable communication, provide feedback, enhance elaboration and retention, support leaner control/self-regulation, increase motivation, negotiate understanding, and enhance team building.  Interactions should be designed, or at least enabled, to support one or more of these purposes.

Expressed in these terms, technology is an enabler, a means rather than an end, for interactions that support learning and mastery.  Weidemann and Pollack (2016) argue that technology has become so ubiquitous that it is effectively disappearing.  Online tools from course management systems, to email list services, to web-based demonstrations are pervasively used in a large percentage of courses.  Thus, almost all education has online components.

It seems to me that we know what high quality education looks like, and we have some inkling of how to achieve quality for online offerings.  We also know that PowerPoint based didactic teaching does not pass muster.  To move beyond this, we need larger numbers of college instructors to embrace the principles and findings discussed here.


Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 3, 3-7.

College English (2016)., Accessed March 12, 2016

New Learning (2016)., Accessed March 12, 2016.

Roblyer, M.D., & Ekhami, D. (2000). How interactive are YOUR distance courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3 (2).

Wagner, E.D. (1997). Interactivity: From agents to outcomes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 71, 19-26.

Weidemann, C., & Pollack, K. (2016). The death of “online” learning in higher ed: As technologies become ubiquitous, familiar labels will vanish. University Business Magazine, March.