Is it Alive? LO16491

Richard Goodale (
Mon, 12 Jan 98 01:21:07 GMT

Replying to LO16461 --


The quality of your arguments has obviously been recognised by our host,
who has seen fit to give your last posting the honor of a palindromic
number. Let me reply to some of your comments in that posting.

[Host's Note: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!... No, I didn't. ...Rick]

First some clarifications. I do not believe that organisational "health"
is a synonym for organisational "success." While "healthy" organisations
tend to be growing and profitable, many are not extraordinarily successful
or particularly large. Some examples of the latter: my "corner" store,
which provides quality goods and services to our neighborhood, employment
to many of our teenage children, but gives its owners not much more than a
decent living; Xerox PARC, which has produced products and services of
great value to the technological society, but little in the way of return
to its owner: Costa Rica On the other hand, there are lots of
organisations which are apparently successful, but decidedly "unhealthy."
Examples: GM, all through the 70's and 80's (maybe even still now); a lot
of corner stores which rip off their customers, evade taxation and put
little back into their community; the Third Reich.

Microsoft? Unimaginably successful, but not particularly healthy. Apple?
Going down the tubes, but still a lot of good organisational DNA in
Cupertino that might yet make some more contributions to the global gene

How do I know these things? Of course, I don't "know" them. But I think
they're an accurate descriptor of "reality." What do I mean by "health?"
What does a doctor mean by it? All the bits and pieces seem to be working
well. They seem to be working together in some sort of "holistic" sense.
In general you seem to be functioning as a human being "ought to." If
you're lucky, you're also making a positive net contribution to the
"health" of other human beings.

I'm not sure from this (and many of your other) postings, if you really
believe, Steve, that "those trying to help organizations help themselves
will not be helped in that effort by talking the language of biology and
ecology and health,"--or whether you're just doing a very good Devil's
Advocate impersonation. In one of those postings you (rightly) made the
point that the "language" of machines could be an equally effective
metaphor. You were right. To me, using the metaphors of biology,
mechanics, etc. to describe organisational effectiveness is just one of
many rhetorical tools we can and should employ. I don't for a minute
believe that a corporation "is" a person, or a machine, or an ecosystem,
or whatever. I just think that, sometimes, it is useful to willingly
suspend belief and see where such analogies might take you.

Where might that be? Maybe asking a group of senior executives to do some
reading on population genetics before they consider making a decision on
their personnel diversity policy. Maybe asking another such group to look
at game theory research before deciding on pricing strategies. Maybe
developing simple diagnostic tools to help organisations get early warning
of the changes in the "health" of its components (however they choose to
define that "health.")

I don't think these thoughts or processes make me guilty of "practising
medicine without a license." Do they? In any case, Doctors are just as
much "practitioners" as are we poor mortals--no matter what the AMA might
want you to believe.

You also, Steve, are sceptical about my statement that I "don't really
know and I don't care" (whether organisations are "alive"), and also take
a later statement of mine (to the effect that when we do find out the
mysteries of the Boston Celtic's fast break we will be enriched) to point
out that I do care. You're right, in that my argument was pretty flimsy
in the last post, but I think you're wrong to infer that I'm completely
full of contradictions. What I was really trying to say was that I'm not
from the anthropomorphic school. I don't think that organisations "are"
people, and we "cells" or "organs" in that "person," and our cells,
somehow "people" in themselves, etc. ad infinitum, reductio ad absurdum
(viz. the Gaia theory). And I don't care, only because I am very sure
that we, in our brief lifetimes, will never know. But.....if we do...Wow!

For.......I do think there are some extraordinary things being learned in
the biological/ecological sciences these days that might, in my
grandchildren's day, at least (that's 2025 and counting) give us
incredible insights as to what this thing we call "life" really is. I
really am ignorant as to what these insights might be (not false modesty
here, but a real confession). But.....I think they're there, somewhere.
I'll keep looking. I'm a "learning person," at least in theory,
certainly by necessity--what are the options?.

Finally, you asked me "where did you find that definition" ("...we only
know what we experience, and what we experience is, by definition, our
life. Isn't it?") I created it (made it up) when I did the last posting,
of course. You questioned it's validity ("No, Richard, now that you
ask.") I very much respect your intellect, Steve, but I'll stick by what
I made up. In fact, the more I look at it, the more it seems like... a

Cheers for now

Richard Goodale


Richard Goodale <>

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>