Is it alive? LO16643

Dr. Steve Eskow (
Thu, 22 Jan 1998 10:02:26 -0500

Replying to LO16615 --

Cliff Hamilton believes that those of us who resist biological metaphors
fail to understand the nature of contemporary organizational life, the
relationship of organizations the "ecosystem" of which they are apart, the
complexities of life and life forms, and much more.

Just a few comments.

1. Biological metaphors are much older than machine metaphors: the body is
much older than our tools and our metaphors reflect that. The Bible is
replete with agricultural metaphors of "growth" and biolgoical metaphor:
the early Puritan covenants all spoke of the "members" or the corporate
"body", thus: "We are all members of one body."

In educational discourse it easy to note the conflict between biological
and mechanical metaphors. Progressive educators use biological metaphors,
and talk of student "growth"; other talk of students as the "raw
materials" and graduates as the "products."

2. Machine metaphors are very much alive in current business and
organizational discourse. For example: the "reengineering" movement
clearly uses engineering as the organizing concept, not biology. The
Deming statistical quality control movement responsible for so much of
Japan's surgeforward, and now powerful in much of American industry, is an
engineering approach, not a biological approach.

Explanations of IBM's years of success and years of decline and failure
and recovery that try to explain this by biology--IBN did or didn't relate
to its "environment" are, I think, examples of trying to stretch a
metaphor to fit the facts: biology is a pseudo explanation in that if an
organization succeeds, you can say it related to its environment well, if
it falter and fails you point out that it failed to grow and change. You
can't be wrong with biology.

For all of the weaknesses pointed out here, correctly, the "team"metaphor
makes it clear that an organization is NOT a living being, but an
artificially contrived structure. It is an assemblage, and living things
are not assembled. It does not grow as a result of interaction with its
environment, but as a result of removing and adding pieces, shuffling them
around, and human teaching and learning.

Talking about the Bulls or IBM as living creatures is good poetry, but
not, I think, helpful in thinking about them as human assemblages that can
be taught to be better than they are by the ways of teaching and learning
and coaching and mentoring that have been devised over the ages.

One such traditional way of learning that has little to do with biology is
the way of discussion, dialog, and debate such as we are having here: and
we are the only living creatures, I think, that learn and change this way.

Steve Eskow

Dr. Steve Eskow
President, The Electronic University Network
288 Stone Island Road
Enterprise, Florida 32725
Phone: 407-321-8770; Fax: 407-321-4861


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