What is an organisation? As you reach for Wikipedia in today’s digital world, you have access to a whole repertory of knowledge for free. An organisation is a social arrangement that pursues collective goals, controls its own performance, and has a boundary separating it from its environment.
An organisation consists of people who are responsible for achieving all the collective goals. To function, an organisation is created with a formal structure that is headed by a leader who should have a thorough knowledge of the functional aspects. Ultimately, he is looked upon to answer queries in running the organisation.
Over time, we assume the organisation will run on well established policies, procedures, its people fitting in seamlessly like cogs in a well oiled machine, producing efficiently and continuously, delivering results.
Beyond the machines that produce or run processes, what we miss out is that it is people whose collective knowledge and skills create a dynamic, living organisation.
Mankind has evolved from living as nomadic tribes to the structured society of today. The lives of our forefathers have left an indelible mark in our genes and our instincts of survival. Modern as we are, we are still “preoccupied with personal security, maintenance, protection, and survival. Now, man spends a major portion of his waking hours working for organisations. His need to identify with a community that provides security, protection, maintenance, and a feeling of belonging continues unchanged from prehistoric times.” (Henry P Knowles, Borje O. Saxberg, in their book, Personality and Leadership Behaviour).
As such, even if we have a well-structured formal organisation, people will fulfil their feeling of belongingness by creating an informal organisation where they belong, feel secure and comfortable. This informal organisation is the actual pulse, the culture of the organisation. People shine and give their best if the formal and informal organisations fit closely, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. How do we make this happen? We first need a paradigm shift in the way we view organisations. An organisation is not a well-oiled machine; it is alive and follows the principles of a living organism.
I am re-producing the following concept of a living system vis-a-vis an organisation by Michelle Holliday of Cambium Consulting. According to her, the pattern of living systems, including organisations, involves four defining characteristics:
1. There are individual parts, people in the organisation, along with their unique contributions. The more divergence, the more the living system will be resilient, adaptive and creative.
2. There is a whole formed in organisations by convergence around a shared purpose, usually service to a customer or community. The more convergence, for example, the more compelling that shared purpose and so the more the organisation remains consistent and recognisable even as individual people come and go, the more the living system will be resilient, adaptive and creative.
3. There is a dynamic pattern of relationship at the physical and conceptual infrastructure of the organisation. The more open and free-flowing the relationships, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system will be.
4. There is what biologists call a “self-integrating property”. This means that by itself, the living system integrates divergent contributions into a convergent whole in a dynamic relationship internally and externally, in an ongoing process of self-organisation and self-creation. In other words, it’s what makes the living system alive. That’s life.
When we recognise that organisations follow this four-part pattern of living systems, we see that we need to build the intrinsic capability to: enable individual people within the organisation; engage the loyalty of the customer or community being served; and design an infrastructure that connects and supports the above two things dynamically.
These are the fertile conditions necessary to enable an organisation to thrive at all levels. At face value, this may appear to be nothing new. We have known for decades about the importance of diversity, shared purpose, and team building. But a few things happen when we acknowledge the fourth part of the living systems pattern, life.
First, we begin to add depth, detail and meaning to each of these three strategies, which until now have been applied quite mechanistically and superficially.
Second, we discover a new role for ourselves as hosts or gardeners, creating the fertile conditions for life to do its self-integrative thing, rather than mechanics re-engineering the machine.
Third, we begin to recognise the emergent collective wisdom of the ecosystem that is the organisation, including people within, customers and community. And with this recognition, we can begin to listen for the voice of the whole, even as we honour the needs of the divergent parts.
Finally, we begin to recognise that life is the true bottom line and that contributing to life is our ultimate reason for coming together in organisation. And that changes everything.
Michelle’s view of an organisation as a living system is a fast-forward view of an ideal, an ideal I believe will make organisations thrive as they achieve their goals through their people and keeping their customers and community content and satisfied.
The writer is the managing director of Syngenta Bangladesh.