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The Corporate Organism

February 18, 2015

800px-Clock_CogsThe prevailing view of an organisation is as an economic machine, a machine for making money. In this mechanistic view, the ideal is to construct, predict, command and control. Relationships are linear. To make a thing happen, you need to understand the causes and the effects. An employee is an asset with utility value, humans are resources and a leader succeeds through exerting their will via command and control structures, like puppeteer and marionette.

We hear managers ask “how do I “make” my report motivated?”, “how to I “build” my team?”, “let’s do a “root cause” analysis and “fix” this!”. The problem with this view, with its cause effect language, is that it reduces people to cogs in a machine.

Trying to understand and develop solutions to some of the most important challenges for today’s organisations, such as employee engagement, innovation and wise leadership, in terms of mechanistic thinking, is woefully inadequate. So if the mechanistic view doesn’t work, what might? Let’s think again about the organisation as something alive. The word organisation and the word organism both have their roots in the Greek word Organon, pertaining to the living body. Similarly the word corporation is derived from the Latin word Corpus, meaning body. It’s a fascinating idea, to view an organisation as a living thing.

Organisations evolve in an environment and find their ecological niche. To survive they need to sense, relate and adapt. They virus-infected-cells-213708_640metabolise by synthesising resources and producing activity along with waste. Organisations can have vision, mission and purpose. We can think of management and information flow as biofeedback, the nervous system regulating the life of the corporation. It’s helpful to view the organisation as alive because it reminds us that what gets organised is complex and often indirect. Organisational life has intent and meaning, and if we want people to grow, learn and flourish we need to respect their beauty, their subtlety and the life they live as whole living systems.

Thinking of an organisation as alive was given some credence in the book The Living Company by Arie de Geus (1999), a book I love and highly recommend. But are organisations really alive? Well no. The image of an organisation as a living entity, is beautiful and very seductive but in the end, metaphoric. An organisation is not a single living entity so it’s not any more alive than a termite mound or a traffic jam. An organisation, like a termite mound or a traffic jam, is a complex whole, more than the sum of the part, that emerges as single living organisms interact in complex ways. So viewing an organisation as a living entity is a kind of poetry and like all great poetry, can really shift your thinking beyond the mechanistic.

An organisation is a complex whole. So in that sense it is similar but not the same as a living entity.

To truly appreciate organisations and organisational life we need a sophisticated way of describing them, in detail, just as they are. We need to include in our descriptions, emergent qualities like culture, camaraderie and engagement,  that emerge from the complex relationships of the parts but can’t be explained by examining the bits in isolation. Poetic imagery and metaphor can help us loosen the way we see organisational problems but we also need to keep it real. Let us know if we are keeping it real by sending your thoughts, comment or questions.

“"The Living Company: Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business" - ENGLISH (UK) Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd

gogs image By SomeDriftwood (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cell courtesy of Pixabay


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