Thursday, May 28, 2009

Using biological, not mechanical, models of organization.

Most people are familiar with genes, the biological code-carriers in our DNA profiles. Some years ago, the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene, coined the term “meme” to describe how humans escape the tyranny of their genetic scripts. Memes are core thought packages that copy and replicate themselves throughout society. They exist in our psycho-social world, in the realm of attitudes, beliefs and values. They travel from mind to mind through child-rearing practices, education and mass communication.

Sociologist Charles Cooley noted we become what we will be to a large extent by the feedback we get from the social system in which we live. Identity and self-esteem are greatly influenced by interactions with significant others in our lives. Our memes, as well as our genes, shape us as people. They impact organizations and institutions, create social conflict and confluence, and produce large-scale change and transformation.

In the future, we need alternative models (biological rather than mechanical) to help us understand the unusual, keep track of the erratic, time the unpredictable, and give shape to the shapeless. Complexity creates the unexpected and, beyond a critical value, it’s a destabilizing force. To cope with this, we need to develop organizations where systems of truly divergent components can work together as a whole. This can only happen in network organizations where control without centralized authority is made possible by cheap coordinating technologies.

Network systems are guided, like a shepherd driving a herd of sheep, by influencing crucial leverage points and by subverting the natural tendencies of the system so it seeks new ends. Networks can absorb the new without interruption. They don’t become overloaded or dysfunctionally complex as they grow. However, developing organic complexity takes organic time. These complex organizations are slow to start and boot up.

Companies in the future must be allowed to develop not so much by planning as by experiential learning. They must be allowed to develop through a process of spontaneous self-organization. Long-term futures will emerge from the self-organizing activities of loose, informal, destabilizing networks. Companies that survive and thrive will sustain themselves by achieving a state of creative tension on the edge of instability. Companies with ambitious strategic intent may well be outperformed by a seemingly disorganized and aimless network of enterprises teetering on the brink of collapse.

No comments: