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strategy & sustainability

leadership & engagement

culture & change

From cog in the wheel to superorganism

Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 by Kristen Sukalac in strategy & sustainability

This is the first article in a series looking at biomimicry as a management approach.

We all want our organizations to be successful, but what does that really mean? Short-term revenue might be great, but what if you are bleeding talent and losing your ability to generate a profit in the future? What if the market around you is changing and rendering your products obsolete? What if demand for your services suddenly spikes and you are unable to cope? How do you ensure the long-term survival of your endeavour?

The combination of the economic crisis, a growing awareness of the need to improve the sustainability of human activities, and the rise of social media, among other factors, have called into question whether traditional hierarchically structured organizations are suited for today's imperatives. In fact, the word sustainability speaks volumes about what companies should be striving for: how can we make sure our companies and our economy are resilient and adaptive enough to keep regenerating?

Biology provides exciting new insights into how to create and sustain vibrant organizations. Since the Age of Enlightenment, there has been a tendency for the human race to see itself as outside of "Nature". In recent decades, research has provided more and more insights into our very nature and into how we function as individuals, groups and societies and how we are connected to and interconnected with the natural world around us.

How craftspeople became "resources"

The Industrial Revolution changed the way we viewed the world. Technology seemed to make it possible to overcome virtually any limitation and inspired new ways to organize work. The switch from artisanal work in cottages and small shops to industrial scales converted workers from craftspeople into "human resources", the implication being that human beings were inputs into the system. They could be "used" more efficiently. They could be replaced. Organizations were seen as machines that could be finely tuned, with people as cogs. Organizational charts, became the representation of how information cascaded through the organization from omnipotent upper management down to the workers, ignoring the way that people naturally relate to and interact with each other.

These strict hierarchies were also a reflection of the largest "working" organizations at the time: armies, with strict lines of command and few democratic principles.

You fix a machine, you manage dynamic, fluid social organisms

Although management scholars have known for decades that the workplace is not so orderly or mechanistic, it is only with the advent of social networks and modern communication technology that the illusion of the mechanical, control-and-command organization has been shattered. In a networked economy, it is also unrealistic to consider a company or other organization to be self-contained in the way that traditional organizational charts imply. Unfortunately, many of the tenets of management developed for the old models simply don’t work in the networked, social workplaces that we all inhabit today. The approaches that Prospero uses when working with our clients are based on understanding that people remain people, even when they’re at work.

The visual identity of this site features superorganisms: groups of individuals that come together to achieve amazing things that they could not alone. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, ant colonies and beehives are examples of superorganisms. Whether they provide protection from predators, build extensive underground cities or keep a hive thriving, the seemingly spontaneous and leaderless coordination of superorganisms is awe-inspiring.

Human organizations are increasingly loose networks of actors surrounded by constellations of stakeholders, and researchers are discovering that instead of resembling living organisms, our human organizations actually are living organisms. We inhabit superorganisms. We participate in superorganisms. Our bodies, our organizations and our society are all superorganisms. But in many cases, we have actually been impeding their natural functioning with our linear, hierarchical procedures. Managers need to learn how to facilitate the interactions that will foster "swarm intelligence". In future, the best performing organizations will more closely resemble beautiful flocks of birds murmurating than well-tuned militaries marching in rigid lines.

Because they have always been at the intersection of biology and industry, agriculture and food production are well placed to benefit from new biology-inspired approaches to work and management. Prospero's unique expertise is based on our grasp of the technical issues facing food and agriculture and being able to work with managers and experts in that field to help organizations embrace their superorganism potential. From executive coaching to stakeholder consultation to redesign of governance structures, our wide range of services can help you effect sustainable change in your organization and beyond. Contact us today to start the conversation.

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This article may be shared under the terms of the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA. No more than 75 words may be reproduced/cited on another website. See our Terms of Use for more details

 The photo of a murmuration of birds near Penmon is used under the same CC license. 

New Scientist recently published an interesting article called "Mind meld: the genius of swarm thinking".

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