As we already know, systemic and cybernetic scientists use metaphors as a means for explaining and providing insight and understanding into complex phenomena. When it comes to organizations a plethora of metaphors and perspectives have been suggested. Some of them are:
- Organizations as organisms
- Organizations as control systems
- Organizations as brains
- Organizations as machines
- Organizations as cultures
- Organizations as political systems
- Organizations as theatres
- Organizations as instruments of domination
- Organizations as information systems
- Organizations as social contracts and many more …
No single perspective, however, comprises the whole truth and it is wise to start from the premise that organizations can be many things at the same time. Therefore the possibility to apply multiple perspectives seems to be a fruitful approach. For the purpose of this book, some perspectives are more interesting than others.
The organismic metaphors of the organization takes it as a superorganism. It assumes that principles guiding the living organism also hold for higher conceptual levels like organizations. The lifecycle with birth, growth, senescence, death as well as the struggle for survival in the individual has its parallels in the organization. The organization or socio-technical systems in general, is regarded as the medium within which autopoietic principles could interact under condition of mutual acceptance. Autopoietic systems are characterized by autonomy since they are not dependent on external production processes. Their structure is self-defined and can be so as long as it is autopoietic.
The organization often lacks defined boundaries. It is rather a structuring of events than of physical parts and it therefore has no manifest composition apart from its functioning. Its structure can be temporarily defined, like mutual related events which recur, repeat and accomplish an activity-cycle. Such a temporal definition is first of all related to the organizational function. Physical or biological systems have both an anatomy and physiology while the organizational system lacks a body. When such a system ceases to function, no identifiable structure remains. In need of concepts and concrete details, we often mix up the organization with its buildings, technical equipment and people.
Organizations are not tied to the same physical constraints as organisms. Thereby they are able to have boundless counteracting of entrophical processes. This is done by incorporation of external resources necessary for survival through their relatively undefinable boundaries. The organizational growth is in contrast to the organism’s exponential if it exists in an environment which supply unlimited energy resources. Their quantitative growth gradually give rise to qualitative changes by the emergence of specialized subsystems, not necessary in smaller organizations.
As systems that evolve through life-cycle stages, organizations pop up and disappear in every society where they are born, grow and someday die. Also some develop faster than others just as well some grow old better than others. A common used five-stage model is the following:
- The entrepreneurial stage. The organization is young. Creativity is high and goals are ambiguous. It maintains a steady supply of resources.
- The collective stage. The organizational mission is clarified and it continues the innovation of the previous stage. The style remains essentially informal.
- Formalization/control stage. The structure is stabilizing. Formal procedures and rules are imposed. Stability and efficiency is promoted while innovation comes into the background. Decision- makers have collected power and are growing conservative. The organization is no longer depending on separate individuals when they depart.
- Structure-elaboration stage. The organization structure becomes more elaborated and complex. Management introduces new products and growth Decision-making is decentralized.
- Declining stage. Demands for products and services are diminishing due to shrinking markets, competition Management struggle to hold markets and to keep personnel. The most skilled people take farewell. Conflicts increase within the organization. New leaders take the leadership in order to stop the decline, often with little effect.
Another way to look at the organizational life-cycle is in terms of evolution and revolution. According to this view organizational maturing is characterized by phases of calm growth, followed by periods of internal turbulence — a crisis. The resolution of the crisis initiates a new evolutionary period. Larry Greiner (1972) states that such an evolutionary path comprises at least five-stages. See Figure 8.6.
When viewing organizations as organisms, they are part of a social ecology which has been thoroughly described by James Miller (see p. 118). Organizations are as old as society and considerably older than science. Thereby organizations have a longer time horizon than individuals and do not expect to die like human beings. Their scale of social time is multigeneral and they have a spectrum of time horizons.
Organizational work activities are more influenced by the nature of man than of the organizational design. A direct connection exists bet- ween the satisfaction of human needs and the effective organization. To integrate organizational and individual compulsions, according to the well-known hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslovo (1954), is highly relevant. Individuals and groups operate most effectively when their needs are satisfied.
According Maslow, fundamental needs of physical well-being and security has the highest priority and must be satisfied first. When lower levels of the hierarchy are satisfied, needs on the next higher level will be actualized. The following sentences are arranged from bottom and up according to the five levels of a Maslow hierarchy.
Figure 8.6 The five phases of organizational growth (from Greiner 1972).
Self actualizing Job as expression of personal life.
Ego Autonomy, responsibility, personal control, feedback.
Social Interaction with colleagues, social and sports facilities.
Security Job tenure, plans of health care and pensions, career paths.
Physiological Safe and nice working conditions. Good salaries and wages.
The organismic view of organization bring to the fore Darwin’s evolutionary theories — often interpreted in the form of population- ecology reasoning. Here, organizations compete with each other regarding scarce resources in order to endure. Thereby only the fittest survive. Like all other organisms in nature, certain species of organizations are better adapted to specific environmental conditions than others. The critical factor is the environment which determines or selects the most robust competitor while the other are eliminated.
By variation and modification new competitive advantages emerge and enhances the survival process.
When new incoming organizational species invade the resource niche, the old species as a whole tend to survive or fail. The reason is that it shares both strengths and weaknesses in their adaptation. By this mechanism whole lines of business sometimes are wiped out within a short period of time. However, it should be remembered that in the organizational sphere as in nature, collaboration is just as common as competition.
The organismic perspective has its limitations when the organi- zational environment can be understood as socially constructed phenomena. The same environment, that by one organization may be seen as complex and unpredictable, may by another be seen as static and easily understood. The organization itself is created of components like beliefs, visions, norms and products with no correspondence in nature. Such facts makes the organization more fragile than the simple organism of nature but also more robust. Organizations and their members can to a certain extent influence their own future in a way not possible for organisms in nature.
When it comes to large and powerful organizations, population- ecology concepts tend to be invalid. Such organizations can insulate themselves against failure and often have governmental protection. Government universities and the community fire brigade do not simply go out of business. It is very difficult to imagine the Roman Catholic Church to be declared bankrupt. Organizations like them exemplified here, are very unaffected of external, environmental threats and seldom eliminated in struggle for life.
The understatement when organizations are viewed as cybernetic control systems is that they are strongly influenced by their environment and therefore must be able to control it in order to survive. Adaptation and pertinent design is dependent on the smooth function of the basic control mechanisms. These in turn, must assume a measuring device giving information whether one should step on the gas or brake, that is, if negative or positive feedback should be applied in order to reach a goal.
Within organizations, keynumbers are such an indicator. A keynumber is data which has been aggregated and transformed into information and communicated throughout the organization. Keynumbers can reflect the organization from different perspectives. One system of indicators is ‘Balanced Scorecard’, a number of keynumbers which make clear the balance between different organizational perspectives. Such perspectives can be:
- financial from the keynumber profit-margin;
- the customer’s from the keynumber satisfied consumer;
- process-oriented from the keynumber stock-turnover velocity;
- human-oriented from the keynumber personal-turnover;
- renewal and development-oriented from the keynumber educational costs per employee.
It is possible to divide internal feedback into two categories. On one hand they consist of processes regulating the core activity which can be labelled hard feedback and on the other hand of soft feedback which affect the behaviour and conduct of sections, groups and individuals. Among the hard feedback processes, the economical follow-up is the most important. This follow-up is executed almost daily for each department by daily reports. For the whole business it is done monthly by the balancing of the books. Follow-ups are also done by checking of customer statistics and marketing activities.
To prevent a decline of business, a time schedule can be done where new activities and attractions are put on the market in order to entice back old customers and attract new ones. Another feedback for the activity, which can be regarded both negative and positive, is a pricing strategy with low prices when slack demands prevails and higher with bigger requests. However, the most important feedback in all categories, must be considered customer feedback on the marketed product.
When it comes to soft feedback processes, a formal feedback exists by the accomplishment of personal education and development interviews. Non-formal feedback exists in the interaction between different working groups or directly between individuals in the organization. These soft feedback processes have the aim to get all co-workers in the organization to work according to common moral and ethical codes but also to weed out persons who do not fit into the system.
All healthy organizations must be able to handle mechanisms of negative feedback in order to check and arrest sudden forces of positive feedback emerging from the market.
- For enterprises growing by gaining more shares of the market and by buying other enterprises, restriction of competition by law is a negative feedback working outside the system boundary (extrinsic feedback). This will prevent a monopoly situation where the free market is threatened.
- Growth through excessive earning capacity is controlled by a negative feedback profit-tax on large-scale production.
- For excessive growth through increased business volume is decreased demand a negative feedback controlling marketing.
- Increased price level is a negative feedback responding to increased wastage and decreased company loyalty.
- Economy measures can work as control of expanding service- commitment.
A vitally important phase of organizational growth (positive feedback) can be realized by increasing shares of the market, increased sales and increased profitability. For organizations in this phase
- increased shares of the market works as positive feedback on price reductions related to price levels of competing firms. For merger of companies and company acquisitions, increased market shares also work as positive feedback;
- increased sales works as positive feedback on well-aimed marketing;
- increased profitability works as positive feedback on changing scale of economies;
- increased waste and bad loyalty in relation to the organization works as positive feedback on bad compensation of the personnel;
- increased number of satisfied customers works as positive feedback on good service. Good service in turn, is positive feedback emerging from well-being among personnel.
By use of feedforward with simulation of certain processes, it is possible for an organization to predict the outcome of individual courses of events. From this information, decisions can be made which realize survival and organizational goals. A typical example is planning and operational control.
If a customized product is going to be produced in a mass- market (mass-customized marketing), this can be done by computer supported simulation. It is cheaper and more rapid to modify the information in the simulated production than to do physical changes of the real product. With this kind of feedforward it is possible to customize the product and keep the prices on a level adjusted for a mass-market. Manufacturing industries constructing cars and textile goods rely heavily on such simulations.
Within medical therapy feedforward mechanisms are used to plan and simulate tumour radiotherapy. It gives the therapist a possibility to determine radiation dose and radiation angles in advance to optimize the coming treatment. If so, the sound tissue surrounding the tumour will be minimally damaged.
Another way to think about organizations is as if they were brains. This can be the a starting point for adaptive organizational designs, appropriate in a modern, turbulent environment. The brain perspective understands organizations as integrated information, communication and decision-making systems capable of learning how to learn. Its holographic qualities, where the whole is included in all the parts (or the parts reflect the nature of the whole) are especially interesting.
In a brain, different regions are specialized in different activities. The various parts are, however, closely interdependent and act on behalf of each other when necessary. The memory functions are distributed and vast redundancy permits the brain to operate probabilistically rather than deterministically. The basis for this kind of brain rests in the pattern of connectivity. Each nerve cell is connected with millions of others, creating the total effect of a brain being both generalized and specialized at the same time. Such a structure allows new functions and activities to emerge and give rize to self-organization and adaptation. More about the specific qualities of the brain is to be found in a previous chapter (see Chapter 5).
To use holographic principles in organizational design is to build on the fact that many good brains and computer networks already exist in modern enterprises. The design has to correspond to the following guidelines:
- Construct connectivity and redundancy
- Produce at the same time specialization and generalization
- Facilitate a capacity to self-organize
- See to that the whole is into the parts
In a sense, the holographic organization has become synonymous with its information system. In the words of Gareth Morgan (1986), it is possible to say that the organization rests in the information system. Its advanced computer systems realize the capacity for decentralization and control even if it has no fixed location (virtual structure). Employees interact in networks of personal computers and audiovisual facilities including remote-controlled automatized factories for physical work.
Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.