A constructive crisis: complex system adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic

Roslyn Cameron, Rachel C. Ambagtsheer, Selene Martinez-Pacheco, HB B. Klopper, Cath Rogers, Sarah Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Purpose: This study aims to investigate the response by a multi-campus private higher education provider to a major crisis. This study examined what elements of complex adaptive systems (CAS) were activated and/or developed within the organization during the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, through a retrospective analysis of organizational responses. Design/methodology/approach: A retrospective qualitative approach has been used. The theory of CAS has been used as the theoretical lens to explore the organizational context, responses and behaviours during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis. A series of semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 senior leaders across the major functions of the organization spread over multiple campuses. Findings: Findings point to coverage of the main CAS characteristics in the organizational responses to the pandemic, however, in varying degrees. There was strong evidence for the application of guiding principles, for self-organizing, for micro-diversity coupled with independent actors and new generative relationships, all brought about by the chaos the pandemic generated. This study concludes that the global pandemic presented this organization with the impetus for rapid and agile responses to what ultimately has become a constructive crisis, paving the way for key elements of CAS theory to be enacted. This study recommend embedding the conscious creation of an adaptive space within ongoing strategic organizational transformation initiatives. Originality/value: There is scant literature on CAS as applied to crises from organizations in the higher education sector and notably from outside of the health/medical fields. As a result, this study offers a novel and original approach to applying CAS theory during a major crisis. In addition to the findings above, this study also found an emergent characteristic, that of agility, which could be further tested as a potential theoretical addition to CAS theory.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Organizational Analysis
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Agility
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • COVID-19
  • Global pandemic
  • Higher education
  • Organizational response to crisis


Dive into the research topics of 'A constructive crisis: complex system adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this