Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Organic organizations

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 1, 2009

emergenttreeMany discussions have passed the past month about organizations. We all agree that organizations are complex. Some say it are complex systems, others that it are complex constellations, and again others that it are complex social arrangements. Organizations are complex for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that humans are involved. Individual human being which all have unique characteristics and behavior. Behavior that never can be predicted completely, which is tried to be controlled in the past but it’s inevitable impossible to control and undesired if you ask me. To let human beings flourish in their daily life is difficult, not the least because of ourselves. But it can do no harm to not control people. Human behavior is so unpredictable, so unique, so evil and so delightful all at the same time, that’s a given. I will not explain the nature of humanity, not only because I can’t, but our behavior seems to me that it can be quite organic. Like all living organisms, humans are autonomous, have emergent characteristics, can adapt, evolve and learn, all gradually.

When you agree that the most important assets of an organization are us humans as living beings, the most important characteristic of an organization could be that it’s organic. The funny thing is that the term ‘Organic organization‘ exists for about 50 years, but was never proven to exist. It has some similarities with concept of autopoiesis. Wikipedia explains:

For an organization to be organic, people in it should be equally leveled, with no job descriptions or classifications, and communication to have a hub-network-like form. It thrives on the power of personalities, lack of rigid procedures and communication and can react quickly and easily to changes in the environment thus it is said to be the most adaptive form of organization.

However, I think it helps to think as organizations as organic, because it’s too difficult to understand the dynamics of human behavior. And even if we could understand it, we could never act to it, or manage an organization in a way that could take full advantage of human behavior. I also think that the explanation of Chris Rodgers on organizational dynamics, design and development are a very good starting point to understand the diversity of an organization.

We probably all agree on what is important for employees, and on the long term for an organization, is employee happiness. Employees that are happy on their job, are more valuable, more responsible, more motivated and by their positive attitude help the organization be more profitable, what’s good for all employees. Again, that is simplistic put, but organizations, like human beings, are too diverse and complex to understand, but the state of the core assets of organizations should be considered the most important. Maybe even independent on what the goals of the organizations are. Maybe the organization should change it’s goals depending on the people that are with it, because the formation of employees will change continually. Can we learn something from this point of view?

3 Responses

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  1. Chris Rodgers said, on September 4, 2009 at 19:57

    Hi Bas,

    Another interesting post in your continuing quest on “self-organization and online collaborative spaces”. Thank you for referring to the related post on my Informal Coalitions blog.

    So what of this proposition that organizations might be best though of as “organic”?

    Your reference to Burns and Stalker’s work takes me back may years, to when I was studying for a post-graduate diploma in management studies. Back then, I was a keen supporter of their organic model, with its lack of hierarchy, emphasis on collaboration and perceived flexibility and responsiveness. And, in terms of design principles, I would still see the notion of an ‘organic’ organization as being broadly preferable to one that was overly ‘mechanistic’. This is not least because the term implies some recognition of the dynamics of organization – its fluidity, emergence, interaction and so on – rather than casting it wholly in terms of its formal, structured aspects. At the same time, I believe that hierarchy also has its merits; provided that it is properly understood. Indeed, you might argue that hierarchy is itself a phenomenon that is found in the natural, ‘organic’ world.

    But this is not the main point that I would make. In fact, talking about the topic in the way I have done so far exposes some of the reasons why I feel it is not as useful as it might at first appear to speak of organizations in these terms. In the paragraph above, I have referred to the characteristics described as “mechanistic” and “organic” as principles that might inform organizational design. And this is how Burns and Stalker thought of them. In broad terms, they argued that the former design was most suited to organizations in ‘stable’ business environments; with organic principles being best suited to environments which were more turbulent and less predictable. They later concluded that moving from one to the other was much more problematic than they had at first envisaged. And, from a complex social process perspective, we might now argue that outcomes in so-called “stable” environments are also much less predictable than they might at first seem.

    However, intentional design is not the same thing as underlying dynamics (which is why outcomes so often diverge from plan). So the real question for me is whether or not organizations can be considered to be organic ‘by their very nature’? In other words, are organizations organic (or “organismic”, as Burns and Stalker originally called this model)? Some people would answer a resounding “Yes” to this. They see them as “living systems” – as organisms, if you like. They would also, therefore, have no problems in using the above phrase “by their very nature” (without the inverted commas) in relation to organizations.

    But here I would have to differ sharply. To begin with, organizations comprise interdependent people in self-organizing interaction. They are not bounded “systems” made up of component ‘parts’. Secondly, these people are conscious and self-conscious; they use ‘talk’, in the broadest sense of the word, as the medium of interaction; they act politically, in pursuit of partial and/or self-interested goals; they behave idiosyncratically; they have the capacity for humour and creativity; and so on. None of these characteristics are present in other living organisms.

    Paradoxically, then, it is these uniquely human characteristics of people in interaction that mean that it is misleading to think of an “organization” as an organism. Or as an organic, living system. This might serve as a useful short-hand to inform organizational design. But I would argue that it is not an accurate way of describing the complex social dynamics of people in interaction. That is, the imaginary construct (or ‘thing’) that we refer to as an organization.

    Cheers, Chris

  2. Bas Reus said, on September 7, 2009 at 10:32

    Thanks Chris, for your constructive plea about organic organizations. I almost cannot disagree with you, which is not something I’m purposefully after, but it helps to better understand the subject and the various (sometimes differing) arguments.

    Organic dynamics, or growth, for organic material is quite predictable. Unlike human beings, with their consciousness, humor, creativity, language and other unique behavior. However, if you look at organizations from a birds-eye view, I think that the organization as a whole might (or should?) have some organic characteristics. How humans learn, adapt and evolve are quite organic by nature. When many humans exist in the same organization, the organization grows, adapts and evolves as well.

    My point is, organizations are so complex, at least their dynamics, that the organic characteristics that humans possess should be more leading for the evolvement of the internal dynamics than sometimes so called strategic decisions by management. Like with participative management, the emergent and the designed should be in balance.

    Maybe the interplay between strategic decisions and organic (or lively) dynamics should be better balanced. And maybe my feeling is that the latter is somewhat underrepresented in many organizations.

    Chris, thanks again for letting me sharpen my view on the subject.

  3. Nicki said, on December 20, 2015 at 11:49

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