The Network Organization
Collaborative Intelligence & Circles of Systems
An excerpt from The Company Body
If we visualize a Human Body we can see how each part of it specially carries out its own function and, simultaneously, works as a whole with the other parts. It is also fascinating how many scholars and writers, like Stafford Beer, Agrippa Menenius Lanatus, Fritz Kahn, Lewis Carrol, Russell Ackoff, etc. — despite the different historical periods and contexts they wrote in — used the power of a Human Body metaphor to refer to an Organization.
Agrippa Menenius Lanatus, a consul of the Roman Republic, was chosen by the patricians to persuade soldiers serving in the Roman army in 494 BC to rejoin the community after withdrawing from Rome in the first of the secessio plebis. The soldiers were protesting against the severe inequity of power in the early Republic and Menenius convinced them through an analogy about the parts of the Human Body and how each part has its own purpose in the greater function of the Body. He told the soldiers that:
“the rest of the Body (representing the plebs) thought the Stomach (representing the patrician class) was getting a free ride so the Body Parts decided to stop nourishing the Stomach. But soon the Body Parts were fatigued and unable to function so they realized that the Stomach did serve a purpose and they couldn’t survive without it.” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, II)
After the story was narrated by Menenius the soldiers went back to the city and negotiated better laws with the patricians.
From another angle, the Human Body metaphor in Lewis Caroll’s essay “Feeding the Mind”, can easily be associated to a corporate “Top-Thinking” Executive:
“Nature provides that, in case of serious neglect of the body, such terrible consequences of discomfort and pain shall ensue, as will soon bring us back to a sense of our duty: and some of the functions necessary to life she does for us altogether, leaving us no choice in the matter … The consequences of neglecting the body can be clearly seen and felt; and it might be well for some if the mind were equally visible and tangible - if we could take it, say, to the doctor, and have its pulse felt. I wonder if there is such a thing in nature as a FAT MIND? I really think I have met with one or two: minds which could not keep up with the slowest trot in conversation; could not jump over a logical fence, to save their lives; always got stuck fast in a narrow argument; and, in short, were fit for nothing but to waddle helplessly through the world.” (Caroll, 1907)
And again, in 1926, Fritz Kahn produced illustrations that drew a direct functional analogy between human physiology and the operation of contemporary technologies, especially industrial machines. Kahn’s best known work, “The Man as Industrial Palace” poster (link to an amazing animated interpretation by Henning M. Lederer), revealed a complex industrial apparatus made of several compartments similar to Human Body organs and cellular functions comparing a living organism with machines, the products of our brains and hands.
While Russell Ackoff, explaining The Nature of Systems in his famous work “Recreating the Corporation”, stated that:
“No essential part of a system has an independent effect on the system of which it is part. For example, the way the heart affects the body depends on what the lungs are doing, and the way the lungs affect the body depend on what the heart, brain, and other parts are doing. The way that a manufacturing department affects a corporation’s performance depends on the behavior of its marketing department; the behavior and properties of the marketing department are affected by the behavior and properties of the production department and engineering department, and so on … Persons see, not their eyes. Persons think, not their brains.” (Ackoff, 1999)
Why should we care?
To design and build Natural Organization Models by applying the harmonious working principles that make our own Organisms thrive:
In traditional management “formulas” the Head is normally the highest “seat” in the corporate hierarchy of people and, historically, has been frequently covered by one individual person. But if we stop and think about it, the Head in a Human Body is not the only part concerned with body coordination and direction. In the nervous system of a Human Body the Spinal Cord is also included and the Brain itself is formed by many essential interconnected parts involved in decision-making processes.
In a Human Body - as in business organizations - the Head, at the intersection of its many parts, sends signals in the form of “to-do orders” to other parts of the body and the result expected/obtained is “voluntary action complete”. Like jumping or making a pirouette, for example. But, unlike business organizations, the peculiarity of the Human Body logic of these “orders” consists in a learning process (suggesting a step forward after T.O.T.E. or the 4 Stages of Competency of Maslow) based on:
— “do and fail”
— “do and repeat”
— “do and succeed”
— “do and copy best performance”
Toddlers, for example, in their efforts to discover the world, follow most frequently the four steps of the learning process above. Their leg and arm muscles become increasingly stronger (constant exercise) and improve technique incessantly (circular jump). Legs and arms “learn” and acquire movement perfection by undergoing continually these four steps. Their movement is directed by the Head but, if the Head had in nature the power to impede action failure, the processes of adaptation and learning wouldn’t even exist.
3. Feedback System
Hence, if the magic box of a Human Head, so complex and interconnected, obtains the desired results through communicating and learning and adapting and not direct control, how can a human being (which is part of a bigger entity like a corporate organization) pretend to obtain due diligence by the other parts of the same entity through direct orders?
4. Shared Purpose
Like it or not, people in an Organization/Super-System are interconnected as Parts of the same Body and they all possess the ability to learn. They can be “sent” signals which they are expected to assimilate and “repeat” during their “performing action”. This doesn’t mean that an engineer or an accountant or a lawyer or a varnisher do not possess sufficiently specialized skills and will learn their profession after being hired. It means that they can learn how to interact better, how to improve results, relationships and refine their own technical abilities while working together if moved by a shared purpose and collaborative behavior. It’s every part collaborating on different areas of skill and expertise to result in something, so that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts themselves. (think of Wikipedia!) That is the spirit of collaborative intelligence which business organizations today can’t transcend. As Frank Nigel put it, “It seems that intelligence, natural or artificial, is an emergent property of collective communication.”
To get consensus on a general purpose the powerful driver is attention. In a Human Body attention is paid to every single organ, although according to different objectives, different priority is given to the various systems. If the goal is “running fast” focus on the muscular system; if we are “underwater” absolute priority to the respiratory system; after eating, as Pavlov demonstrated, the digestive system requires most of the energy, etc. Similarly, in a Company Body, according to priorities, the Circle of Logistics can be carried out by an external specialized group, the R&D circle can be included in the tasks of every internal organ, the circle of Production can be assigned to different supplying organizations in different locations for cost sustainability, and so on. It may happen also that a“fat mind” (cit. Lewis Carroll above) pretends to go swimming immediately after eating not paying much attention to the digestive system’s needs. Well, wait and see how its Human Body will react to such a decision even though human organs possess no “will”. Imagine then, in business companies, people’s reaction if they are neglected and obliged to perform whatever task they don’t share consensus about.
6. Circles of Expertise
Successful business organizations of the future will rely more and more on collaborative circles of functions based on skills, expertise and communication, not competitive hierarchies of the people forming the circles. Like in a Human Body its parts are interconnected and learn and adapt to the environment by being parts of a whole network, in a Company Body its people are fundamental. There is no “intelligence” without two connected neurons; a cell alone is not relevant to make a Human Body, nor is a single person to make a Company Body.
What actually counts in a Company Body is the Collaborative Intelligence in Circles of Systems vitally depending on the principles of: Coordination - Connection - Collaboration and Identity.
As Stafford Beer observed back in the 60s:
“living organisms and human organizations both share a capacity to maintain their identity in the face of pressures from their environment. It is estimated that every seven years, all the molecules in a human body are replaced by new ones, nonetheless you are still recognizably the same person.” (Stafford Beer, 1985)
It is not a question of obvious material continuity, but of the DNA of the Whole Network.