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What is an Ideal Organisation? A well-designed machine or an emergent living organism?

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

“Follow the rules; they have been designed for a reason!”, you must have heard this mantra many times in your life. “Where is the space for my emerging creativity?” you must have cringed at times. This is an everlasting debate between designs and emergence in any organization.

Organizations had to create standards and procedures to manage the complexity of an increasing variety of customer demand, and interconnectedness of global supply chains. The focus on formal strategies and structures defined the efficiency element of the organization and how well the machine is running! However, the same designed structures can become a bottleneck when a new change arrives. How can a well-designed machine adapt to new changes?!

Tension between machine and organism | MQ Learning
Tension between machine and organism; Photo by Canva

Let us start with a question: What is an organization? A well-run machine or emerging living organism. Oxford Dictionary defines an organization as "a group of people coming together to achieve a particular aim." If we take the word "people" out; other species e.g. bees, and ants, also come together to organize a beehive or a colony. Since they do it from their instincts rather than self-reflective consciousness, are there structures well-run machines? Fritjof Capra calls those as self-organized “emergent structures.” 

Before the arrival of humans, emergent structures were all we had, however with humans, as reflective consciousness started getting manifested in thoughts, we were able to design structures in the form of new tools. These tools helped us to further design and architect new structures. However, our genome is still 96% similar to that of Chimpanzee, and we possess the animalistic instinctive capabilities in our genes. So, as humans we operate both on emergent and designed principles through our instincts and mind.. If that so, any human organization consisting of humans coming together for a shared aim must also have both designed and emergent structures.

With the focus on designing excellent structures in the form of strategies and procedures, we somehow missed the power of emergence from the ground-level informal network in terms of flexibility, creativity, and adaptability. Etienne Wenger (19998), a social learning theorist, coined the term "communities of practices" for such informal self-generating networks within the organizations. At the simplest level, this term is currently used in organizations for like-minded people informally coming together for some learning or activities, however, in its truest sense, such practices are the harbingers of new emergent structures. 

A small cringe or snide shared through the right communities of practices can kick-start a feedback loop. If other people find it meaningful, it would be taken further, disturbing the system. After a series of feedback loops, if the current system design cannot integrate it further, it would be forced to change to adapt to the new environment. A new order would be established out of chaotic state. This is how evolution works in species and happens in democratic human organizations. 

By harnessing the tension between designed structures of rules, and the emergent structure of adaptability, skilled managers can create a truly human organization of humans working towards meaningful goals. Next time, you feel a cringe in your belly because of structures, join or create a new community of practice. The designed structures might need new adaptability.

Which is emerging for you today? Please write below in comments!

#design #logic #structure #learning #emergence #organisation


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