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There are systems that are machines; there are systems that are organisms; and there are systems that are social systems. You would be really stupid to treat a machine as an organism. No machine has any goals of survival or growth. But, for some reason, we do treat organisms as machines. Actually, most companies continue to do so. Treating organisms as machines or social systems as machine might be somehow useful. But it doesn’t deliver the multitude of benefits when looking at a social system as a social system.
One of the unintended consequences of this thinking is the tendency to make people behave as though they were machines. Dehumanizing work has led to alienation from institutions, one of the biggest challenges for companies. The reductive doctrine just goes against anything humans believe in: Holistic medicine, the Earth as a global ecosystem, our planet as part of a bigger universe. We’re living in an age of expansion: To understand anything, we have to look at larger systems. Sure, we might never completely understand everything but our understanding increases when we look at the larger picture, reflecting on the largest systems our mind can comprehend.
But, first, let’s have a look how we got here:
From Industrial Revolution to modern corporation
The Industrial Revolution was about the mechanization of work. First thing we did is to take each task apart. Reducing work to elementary tasks. The next step was to mechanize those tasks. We separated tasks into two piles: tasks machines could do and tasks people were assigned to (because it was too complex for machines, human labor was cheaper, etc.). Once we completed the analysis, we aggregated our findings and developed a workflow of elementary tasks performed by men and machines. These are the basics of a modern factory.
In the early stages of industrialization, an enterprise was created to serve an owner. The only reason of existence for the enterprise was to provide the owner with a return on his investment. The worker was a machine: Input equals Output. As the size and complexity of organizations increased, it became less effective to manage them as though they were machines. Decentralizing control became necessary which was incompatible with a mechanistic conception of an organization.
The next step in organization structures was to separate the body (Corpus, meaning body), the operating unit, and the brain, management. This was a fairly easy way to manage an organization’s growth and increase the diversity of its outputs. The body was mindless. It had no choice. It was still a tool, a lever to be pulled.
In the 60’s, various civil movements (civil liberties, environmental, etc.) formed outside of social systems, insisting that their interests be better served by the systems that affected them. Ethics and social responsibility became cornerstones of successful corporations. The command and control management culture changed during that time, focusing more on managing interactions and enabling people to do their jobs better.
While a lot of progress was being made during that time, companies had to react to the advances in information technology and communication. The common belief was (and often is) that people would react mechanistically to information, meaning more and more information and better communication structures would increase the performance of businesses dramatically. As we all experienced during the Great Recession and the demise of various financial models, humans don’t react deterministically to the information they receive.
Shareholder Value vs Stakeholder Value
The main challenge for modern enterprises is to transform from a shareholder-centric to a stakeholder-centric point of view. It’s not enough anymore to create wealth for a limited amount of shareholders; modern enterprises are tasked to create and distribute wealth throughout society. The primary task for each modern enterprise is to provide productive employment with purpose. Companies have to develop communities of purpose focusing on a common cause, which emanates from common values, vision, and passion.
Sharing a common purpose helps companies to deal effectively with increasing information overload and intensifying conflicts. A social enterprise is capable of continuously dissolving conflict while increasing choice. This requires a new organizational concept that sees evolution as its most important objective. Evolution doesn’t always mean growth: Growth may occur without evolution and vice versa. This new organizational model needs to be based on the pillars of democracy, must be multi-dimensional (function, output and stakeholders), agile planning and an optimization system.
In Part 3, we’ll discuss what new forms of management are needed for the social enterprise based on the principles of Human Business Design.
In case you missed it, Part 1 talked about the nature of systems.