Biological Metaphors for Organizational Learning

John Thomas

Human beings have arguably existed as a separate species for roughly 4-10 million years. For most of that time, people apparently lived in small groups. These groups "learned" over time and communicated their communal knowledge through dance, ritual and story. For perhaps 5000 years, people have worked in larger groups accomplishing such tasks as building pyramids and waging (conventional) wars through the use of social hierarchies. These hierarchies worked reasonably well for accomplishing tasks when a particular set of conditions existed. These conditions include: 1. A stable enough environment that plans required little change during execution. 2. A simple enough structure that the plan could be comprehended in one person's head. 3. The cooperation (or coersion) of nearly all the people could be assured. 4. The people carrying out the plan had little access to information that would enable and/or motivate them to change the plan.

Today, large institutions are basically structured in these same hierarchies. However, none of the conditions listed above still exist either for telecommunication companies or for universities. Many people in both types of institutions realize a much more flexible control structure is needed for rapid adaptation to an ever changing and increasingly competitive environment, especially one where the traditional motivational controls of the individuals in the hierarchies are breaking down. Business writers have proposed a variety of methods of dealing with the "chaos" of modern capitalism but no generally accepted and implemented solutions exist.

While large human hierarchical systems are relatively new on the planet (between 10 ^3 and 10^4 years), so-called primitive societies have been evolving much longer (between 10^6 and 10^7 years) and living systems have been evolving as long as 10^9 years. In this talk, I will examine some of the mechanisms that these older evolving systems use; this may help us determine what mechanisms modern organizations must use in order to adapt. A few examples are examined in this "abstract" in order to foreshadow the flavor of the talk.

One obvious fact about living organisms, for instance, is that they have various levels (time courses) of adaptation. The individual animal can learn to adapt to an environment. Since learning takes time, however, if there is something always true about the environment, a genetic advantage will accrue to the organism with an appropriate inborn response to the environment. This type of behavioral evolution takes longer. There is apparently an intermediate form of adaptation in which groups of animals learn; humans share stories verbally, but even livestock appear to learn from each other about poisonous and edible plants in a new environment. This suggests that a "Learning Organization" may do well to have various levels of adaptation; a way of adapting very rapidly which produces reversible changes and ways of adapting which may require more time but which are more permanent.

Biological systems adapt in numerous ways besides behavioral. For instance, increases in the load borne by bones diverts more resource to those bones and increases their strength. Obviously, there are temporal limits to this adaptation. We can have traumatic fractures and so-called stress fractures. This suggests that at least for biological systems, there are limits to adaptability. Note too that bones that lose stress, for instance, in bedrest or space flight, immediately begin weakening by decalcification. In other words, there is constant pressure in biological systems to reduce resource from anything not being used. Similar remarks apply to muscles and capillaries. In other words, "budgets" (of resource) are not approved annually or semi-annualy but continuously. What is being stressed is immediately given more resource and what is not stressed is immediately reduced in resource.

If we conceive of the nervous system as dealing with information, then it is clear that many of the biological adaptations do not rely on "information" in its usual sense. A person does not have to "decide" to increase bone strength as a function of use; it happens automatically. In fact, there are a great many adaptations that happen automatically. In general, humans sometimes use information systems to manipulate lower level systems. Thus, a space traveller, knowing that they will return to earth, can consciously decide to engage in special exercises while in space to minimize loss of bone and muscle. But note that this slower, information based approach is grafted atop a more automatic one. In contrast, organizational approaches to adaptation often presume that every change should occur within the context of an information system; that conscious human, perhaps even group, processes should intervene before a change takes place. Arguing from the analogy of biological systems, however, one might instead propose that some -- indeed, many -- changes should happen automatically and quickly. More conscious, time-consuming adaptations may eventually override these automatic adaptations.

As another example of the interplay between levels of adaptation, consider the muscle tightening that occurs in the middle ear in response to loud noise. The "purpose" is to minimize hearing loss. Such a system works quite well for most "naturally occuring" noises. However, human beings have invented gunshots, subway squeaks, and electronically amplified drum beats whose rise times are so fast that they prevent this adaptation from working. As a result, many people now experience heavy age-related (sic) hearing loss. People could engage in various conscious behaviors to avoid this hearing loss. If they as individuals do not and hearing loss has a big disadvantage in terms of genetic survival, then eventually some other mechanism may evolve, perhaps one that happens purely mechanically (and rather instantaneously) rather than requiring information-based (i.e., neural) intervention.

From the standpoint of the "learning organization" this example again illustrates the importance of having very fast; that is, automatic responses to external changes.

The importance of speed is further illustrated by the biological reliance on systems in dynamic equilibrium. The organism does not first make a conscious decision about "fight or flight" and then work out a plan about how to execute this decision. Highly organized plans for both flight and fight already exist and are primed to go. In an environment that changes rapidly, the implication for organizations is that contingency plans are needed. If we take the biological model seriously, they should be more than paper plans. The people to carry out these plans should be identified, trained, motivated, and ready to go at a moment's notice. The resources should "be in place" for nearly instantaneous response.


There are also often distinct modes of behavior. For instance, in the terms of locomotion, the horse has four distinct locomotion modes: walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Because of the dynamics of these motions, each has a range of optimal (from the perspective of energy utilization) speed. Studies of horses naturally moving from point A to point B show that they typically use a combination of optimal modes. For example, rather than trotting quickly from A to B, it is more efficient to gallop from A to some point part way between and then walk the rest of the way.

The hummingbird moth has two distinct modes of flying; one resembles most other moths and butterflies; the wings flap and the body moves somewhat erratically. In feeding from the long narrow flowers they use for food (which afford no leaf surface for sitting) these moths "hover" much like a hummingbird. It appears that they change their overall wing shape when switching between these two modes.

In these two examples, we see organisms that have evolved distinct modes of movement. In one case, the organism changes the dynamics; that is, the temporal structure of behavior and in the other case, this temporal change in structure is accompanied by a (reversible) structural change.

What would this mean for the corporate world? One way to analogize would be that the corporation have distinct and well-organized modes of behaving depending upon which of several situations it finds itself in. Note that this is not the same as using a procedure under a wide class of situations and then beyond the bounds of that procedure's optimality, either gradually changing it, engaging in exploration, or inventing a new procedure. These latter reactions seem more like what corporations in fact do. Worse, because of the "slowly boiled frog" phenomenon, corporations generally wait until they are operating way outside the bounds of optimality before abandoning their (one) mode of operating.

There are examples of behavior in the animal world where distinctly different modes exist in a social context as well. Well-known examples include army ant forays, bee swarming, and bird migration. Arguably, war might be considered such a social mode among some primates.

If horses moved like most corporations, however, it would work this way. The horse would trot always. Sometimes, it would trot too slowly to be efficient and sometimes it would trot too quickly to be efficient. Then, one day, it would be chased by a cougar and trot at the very limit of its speed and realize it needed to invent some faster way to move. However, it would be too busy trotting to invent this method and get eaten. Ironically, one reason this "horse" was so reluctant to stop trotting earlier was that it had no available alternative. The lesson, of course, is obvious. The corporation needs to anticipate potential radical changes and invent other gaits like walking and galloping and PRACTICE them before they are actually needed.


Trees tend not to score very well on the Wechsler or the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests. It may be easy to conclude therefore that there is little that big-brained primates can learn from them. On the other hand, ginko and tulip trees have been around for about 60 million years as species and some individual Bristlecone Pines have lived for 4 millenia, longer than most American corporations.

Redwoods live long and prosper. One of their secrets is the use of chemical and mechanical mechanisms for keeping out foreign invaders. In addition, they have "allies" in the form of birds, e.g., who help keep out boring insects. (Could we develop a corporate analogue? A sort of reverse head hunter?). Note that the very attributes that help the redwood live long are those that make it highly desirable prey for human beings.

Poplars, pines, and aspens, of course, have a different strategy. Grow quickly and grow anywhere; don't worry so much about taking the time to build wood strong enough to withstand fire and flood and wind. Go where there is less competition. Of course, the poplars and aspens do have two distinct modes of behavior. When the temperature is above freezing and there is sufficient light, photosynthesize and build! When it is freezing and there is little light, lose the leaves, send the assets and liabilities underground and lie dormant waiting for better times. Another apparent strategy for such weak-rooted trees is to have very twisty leaves so that wind tends to slide over the leaves set on end rather than the more firmly placed leaves of oak and maple and beech.

When we see a huge elm tree like this, we easily forget that we are not seeing an elm tree but only half an elm tree. The other half is buried beneath the ground and bears a similar appearance. In the same way that above ground, limbs continually bifurcate to draw sunlight and carbon dioxide from as much space as possible, below ground roots are branching out to gather water and minerals from a wide space. As the tree above grows larger, it is obviously both more firmly rooted and subject to a greater wind force. It both needs more water and has the resources to gather more water; it both needs more sugar and has the resources to produce more sugar. Its growth is well-proportioned. This is not due to a whole lot of specific tactical decisions but due to a strict adherence to a handful of fundamental principles.

Despite the well-balanced growth of the tree, there are limits to its growth like everything else. The cherry tree does not blindly believe that because it has continued to live and grow for years and years that the situation will continue forever. As a tree grows older and taller, there is a always a chance that the environment will change for the worse, that it will be struck by lightning, that it will suffer one or more unrepairable accidents. The tree knows that change is the rule of the universe and that some changes will be beyond its capability to deal with. It does not imagine that it is immortal. Only individuals and corporations do that. So the tree wisely spends some proportion of its energy sending seedlings off. Plants have devised a number of strategies for dispersing these seeds. Some rely on wind; some rely on burrs to have animals help disperse them; the cherry tree actually goes to the bother of making such a tasty fruit that birds will eat the seeds and provide additional fertilizer!

While trees, fish, and frogs use the strategy of making millions of potential offspring and then letting them fend more or less for themselves with the chances that some small fraction of this huge number will survive, humans go to he opposite extreme and have a few offspring but give them enormous amounts of nurturance and protection for a long number of years. Corporations, by contrast, often seem to combine both strategies. They only produce a few "spin-offs" but are both too impatient and too selfish to provide sufficient resources to ensure the newborn's survival. It is almost as though parents walked into their three-year old's room one night and announced it was damn well time for him or her to get a job and start contributing to the bottom line.

The oak that grows alone in the middle of a field will end up in a much different shape than another individual of the same species that grows in a crowded forest. But here again, the shape and size automatically adjust to the environmental conditions by the application of the same principles that balance the tree's crown with its root system. In the forest, the tree will be narrower above and below.

Even more extreme differences in adaptation to various environments require a different species of tree. We find trees growing in extremely dry and extremely wet conditions. We find trees in areas with very stable climates with plenty of sunshine at low altitudes and we find trees growing in extreme climates with less sunshine and atmosphere. Undoubtedly, there are subtle internal differences in these trees as well as the more obvious external manifestations. We see also that an advantage of living in the more extreme environments is that there is less competition. We also see that those trees that thrive in a highly competitive environment are quite different from those existing in a inhospitable and less competitive environment.

Corporations, like trees, that have arisen naturally in different environments look quite different both in terms of structure and process. At the closing 1995 CHI plenary address, XXXX pointed out that software companies, communication companies, and entertainment companies are structured quite differently and have vastly different cultures. Sometimes corporations, however, seem to believe that they can operate in vastly different environments with a minimum of change in structure or function.


One of the most fascinating behavioral phenomenon is the way in which flocks of birds or schools of fish seem to move so well together. There is no director or boss for this coordinated activity. Unlike a marching band, these movements are unique and in response to external stimuli, not a preplanned and practiced set of movements. Many corporations would love to have their people respond in such a coordinated fashion to changes in external events without "tripping all over each other." But, how is this "instant adaptation" acccomplished? There seem to be three crucial characteristics.

1. The individuals follow extremely similar if not identical principles.

2. The individuals are exposed to similar physical stimulus changes. Where there are slight differences, they vary along predictable and coordinated dimensions. For instance, if a cat chases a flock of birds, the birds on the side nearer the cat both hear more sound and see a larger image. These stimuli vary in a graduated manner.

3. Each individual is immediately and continuously aware of the behavior of the other individuals. The birds of a flock don't have to send e-mail, voice mail, or write memos.

In contrast, the individuals in a corporation often:

1. Have widely varying sets of principles that guide their behavior and private agendas.

2. The individuals have widely -- one might say wildly -- different information about the external conditions that must be responded to. Indeed, some individuals in a corporation have specific responsibility to filter and concoct information for other individuals to react to.

3. The individuals in a corporation have a very limited (and time-lagged) view of how other individuals are reacting.


For a particular species, growth occurs at a rate that depends to some extent on the resources available -- but only within limits. Growth is largely determined by intrinsic factors.

You cannot force an oak tree to grow 10X as fast by giving 10X the water and 10X the nutrients and UV radiation.

Corporations seem to believe or presume that growth -- of business, software development, or revenue -- is monotonic without limit -- perhaps even linear --- with resources applied. Though, I have heard the expression used in corporations: "It's like trying to have nine women have a baby in a month."

In all nature, only the human ego seems to grow linearly and without bound.


Our ability to oxidize sugar quickly depends on a complex heart-lung system, but at a more microlevel on the clever design of the hemoglobin molecule. Each hemoglobin molecule has four sites that can combine with oxygen. With a static structure, you would expect that the first oxygen (with four potential binding sites) would combine the most quickly, that the second would take somewhat longer, the third somewhat longer still and the fourth, on average nearly four times as long as the first.

In real hemoglobin, what happens is this: The first oxygen combines on any one of the binding sites. The molecule then changes shape in such a way that the second oxygen actually combines more quickly than the first. Then, the molecule changes shape again, allowing the third Oxygen to combine even more rapidly than the second. The molecule changes shape once more and the fourth molecule binds the fastest of all!

What this means is that we are able to exchange Oxygen with the atmosphere at an incredibly fast rate. This is a kind of adaptation on a microscale of time and space. Of course, at a larger time scale, our breathing and heart-rate change according to demand. On a still longer time scale, we can adapt to higher altitudes. On a still longer time scale, organisms can evolve to deal with more or less oxygen in the environment.

All of these levels of adaptation take place at the most local possible level; that is a lesson perhaps for a corporation to consider. Conscious "executive" thinking is only required if we know we were going to move to a high altitude for generations and decided to therefore marry a Tibetan, or if we are going to the moon, we need to provide alternative oxygen supplies. Within a wide range of levels though, the adaptation to varying oxygen requirements happens "automatically and locally."

There is, perhaps, also a lesson in re-use here. There are a huge variety of mammals and birds that use hemoglobin. Essentially, it is the same excellent molecule, probably constructed by the same genes. It solves a problem that faces each species so well, that in this case, they use (that level) of the same solution.

In today's rapidly changing world, it is easy to imagine that everything is changing. On the one hand, the belief that old systems will work just fine no matter what is clearly at odds with a rapidly changing world. On the other hand, the notion that everything must be scrapped no matter how well it works, is clearly hysterical. Higher level thinking is required to determine when the level of CO in the atmosphere becomes so high that we need a new solution. (Or, a plan to reduce the CO).


In some organisms, a drastic change in the environment can trigger a process called intrachromsomal duplication. Basically, something Epsilon in the environment is expected to interact with a protein Alpha made by a gene A to produce a vital substance -- substance X. Substance X inhibits intrachromosomal duplication of gene A. When something drastic happens in the environment so that substance X is no longer formed, it could spell death for the organism. If Epsilon has changed in the environment so that Epsilon + is now present, the hope is that there may be some other protein, Alpha + -- that may still be able to produce substance X. But how do we find this protein Alpha +. Well, essentially, we imagine that it will be something like, but slightly different from protein Alpha. So, we take gene A which produced Alpha and make 10,000 to 100,000 copies. This effectively greatly increases the mutation rate of gene A. Hopefully one of the new variant genes will produce the new variant protein.

What would such a scheme mean for corporations? One way to analogize would be this: When some vital function of an organization is not working, try out a LOT of different variations of that function till you find one that does work. Of course, this implies that there is some measure of whether or not the function is working. Naturally, there are variations of this theme. Instead of building 10,000 actual departments, (!), one could try 10,000 thought experiments or 10,000 simulations. Or, if there were 10,000 sales people that had always done things a certain way -- and now that way was not working, one could let 10,000 sales people do things different ways until one method was found that worked.


In his course of neural networks, Geoff Hinton pointed out that learning can function to "entrain" evolution. To take a simple example, imagine that there is a certain behavior pattern that is adaptive if it is wholly present but that for this behavior to be fully organized ten internal states of the organism must be "set" to the correct "bit." The random chance of any organism having all 10 bits set correctly, assuming the probability of on and off are a priori the same is 1/1024. Evolution can work in this situation provided that the population of animals is sufficiently large that it doesn't die from gambler's ruin in the meantime. Eventually, we would expect the frequency of the "all 10 right" organisms to predominate in the population. But -- it will take a long time.

Now, consider by way of contrast an organism that still requires all ten bits be set for correct behavior, but one for which five of these bits are "learnable." Such an organism will not be quite as well-adapted as one whose behavior is totally inborn, because there will be a learning curve. On average, it will require time -- prob. 1/32 per trial -- for the organism to learn the adaptive pattern. But notice that the frequency of organisms who are capable of learning the correct pattern is 1/32 -- not 1/1024. The small disadvantage of not using the proper behavior pattern throughout life is more than made up for by the much higher proportion of adaptive organisms in the population. In fact, such a population "converges" on the "correct" sequence much faster and is more resistant to accidental demise.

The question is, might there be an analogy in organizational learning such that an organization in which individuals may try different things may learn and adapt much more quickly than one in which every individual must behave identically. This would only work PROVIDED that there is appropriate feedback. Unlike the case of evolution, however, the adaptation could take place even more quickly if the positive results of an individual could be communicated to the whole organization.

A complication to this simple model is that not everyone -- even with the same function -- is the same. One individual may find a method that works very well for them but requires unusual spatial abilities, exceptional good looks, or having life-long friends in high places. Their technique, even if successful, may not result in organizational learning.

Another way to view this complication is that this simple model deals only with the propagation of the most adaptive individual behavior to other individuals. This may work for simple, symmetrical organisms like Volvox, in which the cells are the same, but even hydrae have differentiated cells and structures. The way to improve the adaptability of an organization may involve the re-arrangement and respecialization of parts, not just the propagation of the most adaptive individual cell.


Our lives and our education are filled with fungible artifacts. Our minds are conditioned to see things as boxes. From grade school on, we have schedules with defined classes that last predetermined minutes. We construct things with lincoln logs, tinkertoys, blocks, and erector sets. Each has a number of essentially identical predefined pieces. These pieces can be joined into structures. The nature of the structure depends upon pieces chosen and the overall organization. Computer interfaces are often organized in windows, boxes, folders, menu items, and so on. We live in a discrete digital world. Or, do we?

We attempt to apply these same concepts to other problems, and eventually, given enough granularity of the boxes and enough trial and error, we get fairly good approximations to solutions. For instance, we categorize the sounds of language into phonemes. We build flow diagrams outlining machines that can reproduce the sounds of these phonemes. Then, speech synthesis is merely the process of putting the correct phonemes in correct order. Unfortunately, human sounds are made by a system that is organic, continous and very dynamic. Real phonemes, as produced, are not so much like building blocks as they are like globs of magnetic jello that interact heavily with their neighbors. By fiddling endlessly, we can eventually make some artificial sounds that human intelligence can appreciate as much like real speech sounds -- enough so that we can comprehend the synthetic speech. But perhaps so much fiddling is required because we have done so much conceptual violence to the reality we are modelling.

We have representations of organizations as well, for example, the organization chart. Organizations and suborganizations are represented as blocks. Implicit in this representation is the notion that we may reorganize them into some other set of connected boxes. But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that people are more complex than a set of tinker toys or lincoln logs. Further imagine that their relationships are more complex than fitting one tinker toy into another or coroporate reporting structures. Under this admittedly fanciful scenario, what ways of thinking about problems and solutions would be facilitated and what ways of thinking would be thwarted by the person=box and relationship=line representation?

Volvox is a small colony of essentially identical cells. We can imagine rearranging the colony without killing the organism or doing it serious damage. Now, let's imagine re-arranging a human being. Suppose, for example, we decided, that the invention of the automobile meant that the brain was too exposed to head injury so we decided to re-organize it so that it was deep in the body cavity, better protected. What would be the implications of this wise adaptation?

Notice first of all, that all sorts of ancillary decisions would have to be made. Would we expand the chest cavity? Where would the eyes go? Would they stay in the skull? Perhaps we should trade places and move the liver to the skull cavity. We would have to re-route a few nerves; e.g., the cranial nerves. The eye-brain system would now have different timing as would the ear-brain system. Where should the "blood-brain barrier" reside? How about the gall bladder? That long snakey tube that tends to get clogged would now be about two feet long instead of two inches long. What about the timing of speech signals? Would we now be less susceptible or more susceptible to head-aches?

The point, of course, is that higher organisms do not typically rearrange themselves.

However, there are some interesting exceptions and perhaps we can learn some organic rules from these exceptions.


One of the most vigorous of re-organizations, one that would make even Mike Hammer proud is the slime mold. It spends it's life as a colony of nearly identical cells sitting there -- well-- molding. But, every once in a while, it organizes itself into a mobile snail like creature that slimes along, forms a fruiting body and sends its tiny space ship off to hopefully happier pastures.

A more common form of reorganization is found in many orders of insects. Dragonflies begin life as underwater terrors; bees as blind, wingless, worm-like creatures; and, of course, butterflies as caterpillars. There are several characteristics in common here. First, these reorganizations are not random; each species has a well-defined reorganization sequence. Second, during the reorganization, there is a considerable period of time in which the organism is both completely non-productive and highly vulnerable. Third, none of these major reorganizations is for the purpose of doing the same things more efficiently. The post-reorganized organism lives in a completely different environment and feeds in entirely new ways. Fourth, there is a fairly strict timing to the reorganization.

A less extreme form of "reorganization" occurs in some fish and amphibians in which a female can change into a male if no males are present. I hesitate to draw an analogy here to corporate America.

Still less extreme maturational adaptations are found even in humans. The onset of puberty, for instance, is associated with structural, chemical and behavioral changes. Pregnancy causes obvious shape changes, but perhaps less obviously, it also changes the hardness of ligaments and tendons to allow for childbirth. Even these minor changes, it should be noted, are not without risk. The onset of puberty increases the incidence of certain cancers as well as certain behavior problems. This is not to say we shouldn't have any more childbirth of course, nor to say that we shouldn't have any more corporate re-organizations. However, evolution has decreed a certain reverence and respect for the danger that such re-organizations imply and put constraints on them.


In the biological world, almost every weirdness imaginable happens, at least occasionally. For example, there is a species of angler fish in which the male is extremely tiny compared to the female and essentially becomes a permanent parasite on the female. In fact, the vascular systems actually become intertwined. There is a type of beetle that hatches inside its mother and eats its way out. There is pretty good evidence that the mitichondria that engine our bodies were essentially captured organisms. Lichens is a dual plant. It is composed of algae that relies on a fungus to hold moisture and a fungus that relies on the algae for food.

Two much more common forms of interdependence, however, are feeding and mating. In feeding, one organism ingests another and the ingested organism completely loses its nature. Typically, not even single individual cells survive. When a crocodile eats a bird, what was bird becomes totally crocodile.

In mating, on the other hand, two extremely similar organisms interact and produce offspring which are very like both the parents. Note that in the case of mating, the offspring produced is eventually separate from the parents who continue to exist as individuals. I know of no cases in biology where two organisms mate "forever" and essentially become one larger organism. The fish cited above and the famous praying mantis female who eats her mate during mating are examples of combinations of feeding and mating, but the mating, per se, does not result in a single organism.

Sometimes, corporations come together to form a joint venture that is separate and distinct; e.g., IBM and Sears (and originally RCA) formed Prodigy. At other times, however, corporations "merge" to form a larger corporation. If this is not feeding wherein one corporation is essentially destroyed, I don't see any analogue to this in the natural world. That does not make it wrong, of course; it is just interesting that in a billion years of evolution only corporations have found the (permanent) merger to be an effective strategy.

The purpose of sexual reproduction is partly to provide new combinations of characteristics, not to form an organism that is larger than the originals. It is also interesting to note that mating always occurs between two very similar organisms. (This restriction does not typically apply to feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, commensualism, or mutualism). While sexual reproduction allows for a variety of powerful selective mechanisms to come into play, I cannot see how simply forming an organism twice as large would be very advantageous.

I cannot think of many examples of divesting in the natural world either. "Well, arm, you're on your own now....good luck..." The reason that this seems ridiculous for complex organisms is that there are too many interdependencies and interactions across any boundary you could choose to draw.


Most animal bodies are both immediately locally reactive and provide input centrally. We humans have far more touch sensitive receptors e.g., on our finger tips than the middle of the back...but every reasonably small region that interfaces to the outside world is capable of sending touch, pain, hot and cold signals. These signals are being sent constantly but the overall system is especially sensitive to any changes in signal level. These sensors at the interface are in addition to the specialized distance sensors of sight, hearing, and smell. We are very good at noticing small differences of stimulation in time or space but typically only discriminate a few absolute categories.

One analogy to a corporation like NYNEX might be this: that every single time every single individual interfaced with the world outside of NYNEX they would provide feedback. Every craftsperson who saw a discrepancy or change would report it immediately. Every DA or CSS call to operators would result in feedback to the corporation. Every sales call, every comment that anyone made to an empoyee of NYNEX would provide input.

To turn the analogy around, what would an animal be like whose sensory capabilities were like the typical corporation? I would see such an animal as being under the heavy influence of novacaine. They would be basically deaf, blind, and anomic as well. Small changes in the interface would not be automatically relayed to the CNS. However, periodically, highly specialized and highly quantified measurements would be taken. These measurements would provide input for formal mathematical calculations but the vision would be more like reading bar codes in the supermarket than the kind of vision that we as human beings enjoy.


There are two fundamentally different views that we might take about the nature of a corporation: what it is made of and how it functions. In one view, we can imagine that a corporation is composed of human beings. The human beings have amazing abilities to perceive the world, learn, think, solve problems, decide on actions and make coordinated movements. In addition, they can communicate among themselves. In this view, the corporation is more complex than the individual human and capable of more because it may utilize the aptitudes and abilities of its components. The corporation may be viewed as organic; in fact, a superorganism. In such a view the ideal corporation allows, in deed, requires each component; that is, each person to be a fully functioning human being who utilizes all his or her talents. Just as each cell in our body is required to respirate, reproduce, ingest, and so on, each human in the corporation would use their sensory input, think, create, learn, and do. The net result would be that the corporation as a whole was able to accomplish things of a nature and scope that no individual could imagine doing just as we can paint, sing, and dance though our individual cells cannot. Notice however that the human being does accomplish all the things the individual cells do as well; that is, respirate, digest, etc.

In another view, a corporation consists of a series of defined tasks. We can specify what the inputs to these tasks are, what the changes in internal states are as well as what the outputs are and what the mapping is between sets of inputs, internal states, and sets of outputs. We may find it useful to break down this overall Turing machine into smaller units and define the outputs of some machines to be inputs to another machine. It is only a matter of cost/benefit to determine which functions are best performed by machine and which by human. In such a view, the ideal corporation is a machine accomplishing the required specified functions at minimum cost and dispensing maximum profits to the shareholders.

I would submit that no corporation could in fact exist long if it actually ran according to the principles embodied in this second view. In fact, the corporation does consist of human beings who want to make a contribution and therefore, while the corporation officially or formally; that is, self-consciously attempts to run itself in the second, mechanistic view, in fact, it is run in a mixed mode.

To complicate matters further, within the corporation there are small groups of people who actually function as semi-autonomous teams. Some of these small teams are very effective; they exhibit emergent intelligence beyond that of the indivduals that compose the team. In general, the people qua people and the effective teams are what makes corporations (and all other large organizations) actually succeed.


Perhaps the interplay among these issues is clearly illustrated by a consideration of sports teams. Here, there is little in the way of historical accident, effectiveness of lobbying, business definition, etc. to cloud what works. What works, primarily, is to have a team that works well as a team, is composed of good talent, has good plays and shows an ability to learn and adapt. There may be organization charts describing the "back office" but the charts for football, baseball, and basketball TEAMS themselves have to do with the dynamics of the game, not with reporting structures. A football caoch would never say, "how can Joe be a good quarterback? He wasn't even a good linebacker." Nor would a reasonable human say, "How can that be a good bone cell? It wasn't even a good muscle cell."

We cannot imagine the baseball manager having a little talk with the team along these lines: "Well, corporate has determined that we have to cut our on the field operating costs by 11 per cent; Don, from now on you're playing first and second base. Um...the shortstop will shade over toward second. Sure, at first, you'll both have to run a little faster, but we're sure you're up to the challenge. By the way, no more need for top of the line shoes and gloves either; I got a special deal with Sears. You'll get all your equipment from them from now on. We've also calculated that we can save another 10 Million Dollars a year but cutting spring training time in half." Of course, competition is a necessary factor in making these various cost-cutting suggestions ridiculous. If, in fact, people had no real choice but to go and see this one team play itself, then these measures might make sense.

What would these changes be like for the human being? Can you imagine a person saying, "Well, I've thought about it, and by getting rid of my legs I can save a whole lot on food bills, not to mention the cost of shoes, socks and trousers. I really don't need legs that much to be a computer programmer. In fact, once we get that speech recognition system installed, I really won't need both my arms either."

Of course, this seems absurd. Yet, over a longer time scale, it might be perfectly reasonable for a land animal to migrate to the ocean and gradually lose its limbs in favor of better adaptations to a water life. The question is, can corporations in a short period of time -- on the order of years or months -- make sudden decisions in this regard that are as intelligent as those evolution makes over many millenia?


It has already been hinted that corporations spend far too little resource finding out about the world they live in. What else might we learn from how organisms are structured and how they function? Naturally, the relative proportions of various items depend a lot on the environment in which organisms live. That, in and of itself, is one lesson: we should expect the structure of healthy corporations to look quite different depending upon the environment.

Still, despite the vast differences in environments between Kodiac bears, bats, and whales, there are also many similarities in the proportionality of structures as well as functions. Much of the "stuff" of each organism is concerned with locomotion. Arguably, a corporation is typically more like a tree than an animal (or perhaps a sessile animal like a hydra or sandworm). But need this be the case? Baseball teams, rock bands, dance companies, armies, and even symphony orchestras spend a lot of time moving around. They do this for essentially the same reason that animals do: to find more sustenance. If corporations don't need (or can't) move physically, should they spend more time moving around conceptually in markets, e.g.? What would be required for them to do that? Would the advent of telecommuting and ubiquitous communications and computing make such a corporation more feasible?

Organisms are always trying to be invaded by other organisms. That is one reason for skin, but also a reason for an immune system. The process of taking in substance from the outside (eating, breathing) necessarily exposes the inside of the organism to various substances that must be removed from the body. A fair proportion of the organism is concerned with the expulsion of waste products, poisons, and attacking organisms.


We live in rectangles, on rectangles, by rectangles and for rectangles. Our buildings are rectangles; our offices; our computer windows; our computer screens; our pieces of paper; our calendars; our mouse pads; our conference tables; our windows that are shaded and shielded from a view of the outdoors; our hallways; the tiles on the hallways; our modern telephones; our telephone keys; our keyboard keys; our books; our PDA's; our notebooks; our calculators; our whiteboards; our easels. When something is round like floppy disks and Cds we put them in rectangular storage. No less our pre-packaged cereal, meat, and cheeze is put into rectangles. Lately, pre-made salads have been arriving in rectangles. Our credit cards, our wallets, our money, our schedules, our certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce are rectangles. Rectangles have become the dominant species on earth; they use us for their propagation.

In the natural world of life, we find fractals, branches, spokes, spirals, circles, spheres, femur-shapes and wing shapes; we find long threads and sharp spikes; we find twisted braids and oak leaves and maple leaves. We see hexagons and five-fold symmetry and radial symmetry.

In all seriousness, I am not suggesting that rectangles are evil or that no design deserves them. But one does wonder what this constant bathing in a sea of rectangles does to imagination and representation. It might be worth exploring alternative representations!