One of the defining characteristics of a Complex Adaptive System is the capacity to change and learn from experience. To be sustainable, an organization must develop over time – meaning it must grow, learn, innovate, and adapt to it’s environment. Each component of an organization such as its employees, management, systems, and structure must all be aligned to constantly, exchange, and utilize intelligence. The Organic Enterprise is a Learning organization which has the following characteristics required of any innovative pursuit: Developmental, Porous and Free.
Many traditional organizations offer some form of employee development whether it is tuition re-imbursement programs or web-based “leadership” training. Some may even incorporate development goals into employee evaluations, but few really take the time to truly consider how learning occurs in the first place. For example, studies in early childhood development show that our natural learning style primarily involves “playing” with new things and using “trial and error” to figure them out, yet most corporations are structured to discourage playing or trying something new. In this kind of environment, people quickly become conditioned to hording knowledge and even begin placing job security above learning – with a debilitating effect on corporate innovation.
Instead, leading experts such as Dr. Peter Senge have recommended changing the mindset of organizations to incorporate principles such as Systematic Thinking, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning into how people work together every day. The organization becomes skilled at not only creating knowledge, but exchanging it, improving on it and then having the ability to act on it. In this way, learning becomes a discipline, or part of the on-going process which enables the entire Organic Enterprise to constantly grow and adapt – and therefore not only survive – but thrive!
A recently popular term used in many corporate mission statements in “boundarylessness”. It’s meant to encourage employees to overcome obstacles and barriers to corporate goals. However, if we look to natural organisms and cellular structure we may discover the superior concept of “porousness”.
Cells have an outer boundary called a membrane which is a porous boundary separating the interior of the cell from it’s environment. This membrane is porous; providing both rigid strength while also being selectively permeable. As such, the outer membrane is crucial for inter-cellular communication and these characteristics uniquely allow for the cell to have both a defined boundary as well as simultaneously provide for constant interaction, communication and visibility.
Within any organization, there are boundaries and limits. The key is which ones can or should be crossed, when, and by whom – for how long. The Organic Enterprise provides enough structure to maintain order but is also permeable enough to facilitate the constant movement and interaction of information and ideas to facilitate organizational growth and development.
Freedom is necessary for any organization to learn, grow, and develop. However, there must also be a certain amount of control within the organization in order to maintain balance and stability. It must be the goal of any Organic Enterprise to navigate this inherent dichotomy in such a way as to limit the ill-effects of control used to coerce while supporting the freedom required to question everything.
As H. B Phillips once wrote, “In an advancing society, any restriction on liberty reduces the number of things tried and so reduces the rate of progress. In such a society, freedom of action is granted to the individual, not because it gives him greater satisfaction but because if allowed to go his own way he will on the average serve the rest of us better than under any orders we know how to give.”