by Bob Lewis

Business as Organism, Mechanism, or Ecosystem

Nov 09, 2010
IT Leadership

Do you envision your organization as an organism, mechanism, or ecosystem? The answer has powerful consequences.

Do you envision your organization as an organism, mechanism, or ecosystem? The answer has powerful consequences.

“To its practitioners, politics is about power: getting it, keeping it and using it. But for the nation, the basic purpose of politics is to conciliate.”

– Robert J. Samuelson

It’s a jungle out there.

Since I was young enough to be protected by Child Labor Laws, and probably before, managers have used this phrase to describe their working environment.

It’s apt too often: The enterprise is organized, if that isn’t too strong a word, as an ecosystem in which employees at all levels interact to further their own self-interest.

Furthering the interests of the enterprise is an accidental byproduct at best. More usually it isn’t a byproduct at all. The enterprise is left to look out for itself.

Business leaders have three powerful metaphors to choose from when constructing their organizations: ecosystem, mechanism, and organism. From all appearances, most choose unconsciously based on their personality, character, ego, and energy.

Ecosystems are to biology what marketplaces are to economics. They are spaces within which independent agents act so as to maximize their “utility” … their own self-interest.

Business-as-ecosystem is the logical choice for executives who think the marketplace is the solution to everything, because according to the set theory most of us learned in high school, “organizational effectiveness” is a subset of “everything.” Marketplaces are, however, no more the solution to everything than anything else is the solution to everything.

Marketplaces are just the ticket when what you need is an efficient way to balance supply and demand and you’re able to preserve competition among both suppliers and buyers. They’re a terrible way to focus energies on defined goals, though, because marketplaces have no goals of their own and aren’t supposed to. Their purpose is the exact opposite — to encourage all actors to operate independently to achieve their personal goals.

When businesses are organized as ecosystems, personal relationships are characterized by distrust, as they should be: Deer compete with each other for food and mates; meanwhile any deer that trusts a wolf is a dead deer.

And so, organizational ecosystems devolve to silos within silos within silos. It’s no way to run a railroad. Or any other organization, from an enterprise down to the smallest workgroup.

Many business executives, recognizing that siloization (it isn’t a word but it should be) inevitably leads to dysfunction, choose to view their organizations as mechanisms instead — collections of gears, cams, cogs, levers and buttons, connected so as to achieve a coherent result.

It’s business-as-automobile and business-leader-as-driver. It’s the view preferred by process consultants of all religious persuasions … lean, six sigma, lean six sigma, theory of constraints and whole-hog process re-engineering for the enterprise as a whole; ITIL for IT, and other process frameworks (I imagine) for other business disciplines.

All start by describing an organization as a collection of processes and sub-processes that feed each other’s inputs and use each other’s outputs to achieve the organization’s purpose (I’d have said “mission,” but missions lead to Mission Statements and that way lies madness).

What is that purpose? It’s the purpose of the executive in charge … the CEO for the enterprise as a whole and the other C-level executives for the organization’s major divisions.

Business-as-mechanism is far superior to business-as-ecosystem because mechanisms, whether they’re automobiles, power tools or computers, can and do achieve the purposes for which they’re designed, so long as they’re operated by people who (a) have the appropriate skills to use the mechanism; (b) know what they’re trying to accomplish with it; and (c) have chosen to try to accomplish something for which the mechanism is suitable.

Only the operator cares whether the organization achieves its purpose, though. The vision of each gear is limited to the gear turning it and the gear it turns in turn.

Contrast that with organizations that operate as organisms. Unlike mechanisms, the organism’s purpose belongs to every part of it. That’s what lets it adapt to changing circumstances. Feet build callouses, muscles harden and bulk up, skin tans when exposed to more sunlight — each part supplies its own energy and figures out the details of its operation on its own without subverting the overall purpose of the critter it’s part of.

Organizations that are organisms are rare because leaders willing to invest the effort to build them, and to forgo the gratification of being the sole driver, are rare. While evidence is sparse … Business Management theory hasn’t yet reached even the level of reliability associated with Economics … what evidence we have suggests organizations that operate as organisms are the most successful in both the short and long run.

The early Microsoft under Bill Gates is an example. It was a predator. Microsoft now, under Steve Ballmer, is by all reports an ecosystem.

Paints a picture, doesn’t it?

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.