KELLY: The Living Company

What if we thought about a company as a living being? Not a pile of physical assets. Not a machine for making money. Not even a collection of living beings -- a living being itself. An organism.It's an idea popping up in many places, a sure sign its time is coming. I ran across it recently in the writing of MIT management theorist Peter Senge in his Foreword to The Living Company, due in May from Harvard Business School Press. The dominant view today sees the company as a machine: Something that can be "owned," that exists for the purposes of its builders, that undertakes action only as a reaction to management goals. People are "human resources," Senge writes, "humans standing in reserve, waiting to be used."His portrait of the alternative: a living company that evolves naturally, regenerating itself, with a personhood not imposed from above, creating its own processes, "just as the human body manufactures its own cells." People aren't resources, but members of a human community.I find this Foreword, I confess, more compelling than the book itself because it's briefer (most things are too long, Martha Graham said). But the book is authoritative. It's by Arie de Geus, who spent 40 years at Royal Dutch/Shell, and is credited with originating the "learning organization" concept. The book's point is this: Most corporations don't live long. Of the companies listed in the 1970 Fortune 500, for example, one-third had disappeared by 1983: acquired, merged, or broken apart. The average life expectancy of a multinational is 40 to 50 years. That's because companies are profoundly unhealthy -- suffering from a "learning disability." Only living beings can learn.Learning is not about profits, or maximizing shareholder returns. De Geus calls these "vestigial management traditions." They are the reasons companies die -- because "managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations' true nature is that of a community of humans."But there's something deeper here -- a tantalizing thought, that keeps slipping around the edge of cognizance: that a company is an organism. It's not "like" an organism. It is one.In a 1911 essay, William Morton Wheeler made this point about an ant colony: It wasn't analogous to an organism: it was an organism, in a scientific sense. "Like a cell or the person," he wrote, "it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution ... neither a thing nor a concept, but a continual flux or process." Kevin Kelly recounted Wheeler's theory in his own essay "Hive Mind." As he wrote, the hive is "a mob of 20,000 united into oneness."Hive mind "emerges" from the mass of insects. No one's in charge. The mind isn't "in" any individual, but in the whole. And all that's required to create hive mind is 1) that the bugs multiply; and 2) that they communicate.In short, we don't have to try so hard. All this business about directing people, laying strategy for a future we (futilely) expect to be predictable it's much ado about very little. The intelligence is there, in the group. The manager's job is not to thwart it.Most of us aren't there yet. We're taking steps backward even as we know we need to move forward. We talk about "a sense of ownership" among employees, yet give them a tiny sliver of actual ownership. We talk about empowerment, then squelch the pursuit of real power in unions. We talk about trust, then monitor keystrokes. We say "give 100 percent," as we turn jobs into temporary or contract work. We talk about knowledge as an asset, as we whack off institutional memory in layoffs."Why do so many organizations feel dead?" Margaret Wheatley asked in "Leadership and the New Science." Because we treat them like machines. And machines have one rule: faster. We drive people, and ourselves, relentlessly. We don't let humans be human: quirky, cantankerous, unpredictable, playful. Alive. Through stress, anxiety, sleeplessness (endemic today), our bodies are trying to tell us: Hey, you know what? Fast is a drag. Let's leave it to the machines.

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