Is it alive? LO16511

Winfried Dressler (
Tue, 13 Jan 1998 11:44:29 +0100

Replying to LO16362 --

Dr. Steve Eskow wrote:

> I, for one, find little explanatory value in the organismic lens.

Hello Steve,

It is me again, and I am still 140 mails behind, so please excuse me, if
my statement is redundant to something written by someone else I haven't
seen yet.

Although the organismic metaphor clearly has its limits (and it is
important to stress them (see below) - I can only support you in doing
so), it also has important strengths which should not be thrown over bord.

The following is based on ideas I have learned from Gareth Morgans "Images
of Organisations".


The organismic metaphor is a reaction to the limits of the machine
metaphor as propagated by "scientific management", "Taylorism" etc. I
think I do not have to explain the idea, that an organisation should be a
well oiled, optimized machine, designed by "white collar workers" and run
by "blue collar workers"...

The organismic metaphor simply (may be oversimplified) includes the idea
that any organisation is linked to a specific environment and "lives" from
exchange processes. Different environments require different organisations
to act in.

First, this is the fundament of the interest on strategy as search for the
best fit between organisation and environment (from customers and
competitors up to all other "stake holders") Bruce Henderson from Boston
Consulting Group stressed repeatedly that managers can learn more from
biology including evolution theory and sociobiology than from military

Second, this metaphor opens the view to three different views on how to
develop an organisation:

1. The OD approach tries to fit an organisation to the specific needs of a
given environment including all the human resources and training efforts.
May be organisational learning is also mainly understood under this lens.

2. The population ecology view rejects the idea of given environments and
states, that the change of environment leads to birth and death of
"populations" of organisations. Good examples are the change from small
family businesses to big multinational companies or the shift from
industrial production to more service oriented businesses.

3. The systems approach connects both views above to the idea of a
coevolution of organisations and environment in a loop of mutual
influence. An example would be the effect of industrial organisations on
3rd world countries with growing metropoles including slum areas and
social problems and extreme poverty in rural areas. For them,
organisations as we know them, are not only alive in a biological sense
but nearly godlike powers from the dark side of cosmos. Such effects will
sooner or later feedback to the way organisations are built and run.

These are the main strengths and explanatory value of the biological
metaphor and I think you can agree to these strengths, although you may
have not seen them as part of the metaphor.


I understand you as being more concerned with the limits of the metaphor,
which must not be forgotten (but quite often are forgotten):

1. Organisations are not as functional integrated as organisms. In an
organism, if one part becomes dysfunctional, the whole organism is
threatened and may die. This is definitely not true for organisations.
Here the struggle of interests, conflict and power is normal and should be
accepted as normal, lets say, as part of the game.

2. From the fact that organisms are functional integrated, some people
derive that organisations should be functional integrated as well. This is
ideology and not a valid conclusion. Moreover it leads to frustration for
the "idealists" who subscribe this "should", because it is nearly never
even close to reality and quite hard to find a lobby, for it is not, what
most people want from the organisation they work for.

Is this the end of learning organisations? It would be the end, if LO is
understood as a mean to establish functional integrity within
organisations and I am afraid this is exactly what many people try to do.
What follows is frustration with the concept of LO and either the search
for new promises or a deeper understanding of the underlying principles.
One example are the differences between functional integrity and high
performance teams which you mention. Another example is the understanding
that the wish for functional integrity is never a vision in the sense of
personal mastery and therefore unable to create creative tension - it is
always part of emotional tension in the sense that it is a form to express
the wish to reduce emotional tension.

> For those of us who are practitioner the usefulness of a particular fiction,
>or metaphor, is in the value we find when we "read" a particular situation
>through that metaphor.

May I include another value, especially for marketing purposes and
dialogue: It is also important to know, what other people (one rely on)
"read" in a particular situation by looking through the metaphor they use.
It helps to avoid to tell them that their reading is wrong and to offer
just another lens instead.

I believe that metaphors are one of the greatest learning tools.

Best Regards

Winfried Dressler


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