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Research Paper No. 2040
Prigogine’s Theory of the Dynamics of Far-From-Equilibrium Systems Informs the Role of Strategy-Making in Organizational Evolution
Robert A. Burgelman

November 2009


Prigogine’s Theory of the Dynamics of Far-From-Equilibrium Systems Informs the Role of Strategy-Making in Organizational Evolution*

Robert A. Burgelman StanfordUniversity November 2009


To be published in GERMAINE, O. (ed.), Les grands inspirateurs de la theorié des organizations, Editions Management et Société, 2010

* Professor Bill McKelvey of the UCLA Anderson School of Management provided incisive comments on an earlier draft of this chapter and helpful suggestions for tightening and deepening its arguments. 1 INTRODUCTION Ilya Prigogine was born in Moscow in 1917 and died in Brussels in 2003. His family decided to leave the Soviet system and went to Germany in 1921, and then to Belgium in 1929. Prigogine studied physics and chemistry at the Free University of Brussels, where he obtained his doctorate and in 1950 became a professor. A brilliant theorist and researcher, he was appointed director of theInternational Solvay Institute for Physics and Chemistry in Brussels in 1959, and in the same year also accepted an academic position at the University of Texas at Austin where he later co-founded what is now called the “Ilya Prigogine Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics.” Among the many scientific awards he received, the Rumford Medal for his work on “irreversible thermodynamics”in 1976 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on “dissipative structures” and their role in thermodynamic “far-from-equilibrium systems” in 1977 stand out (

This paper offers a perspective on how Ilya Prigogine’s theoretical ideas rooted in the physical sciences can inform and inspire organization theory and strategic management scholars. To that end, the next section ofthis paper provides a brief synopsis of some of Prigogine and his collaborators’1 seminal scientific insights in the dynamics of far-fromequilibrium systems in the physical sciences. This is followed by a brief summary of how their insights gleaned from studying the dynamics of far-from-equilibrium systems in the physical sciences may inform the study of social systems. The section following thisprovides examples of the general applicability of the theory of nonlinear dynamics of far-from-equilibrium systems in economics and organization theory.


While Prigogine’s theoretical insights have important implications for all levels of social systems, the main purpose of this paper is to examine how his insights inform the role of the strategy-making process in matching the internal andexternal ecological dynamics that together determine an individual organization’s evolution and its longevity. Consequently, in the next to last section of the paper I draw on my own work about the role of strategy-making in organizational evolution to establish conceptual links with the fundamental insights generated by Prigogine and his collaborators. The conclusion section suggests thepotential of Prigogine’s work to unify the physical and social sciences and to motivate a new philosophy of science. PRIGOGINE’S SEMINAL SCIENTIFIC INSIGHTS: A BRIEF SYNOPSIS The purpose of this section is to highlight some of Prigogine and his collaborators’ key scientific insights in order to provide a foundation for appreciating how these insights may inform, even if only by analogy, the study of thenonlinear dynamics of far-fromequilibrium social systems. Needless to say, the verbal synopsis presented here does not do justice to the sophisticated mathematical reasoning that underlies and supports these insights. Dissipative Structures Prigogine’s research on dissipative structures in physics and chemistry generated fundamentally new insights into the “self-organizing” capacity of nonlinear...
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