Fritjof Capra’s Dual Nature of Organizational Structure

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Fritjof Capra, in The Hidden Connections, poses a dual nature of business organization. (In the term “business” I am including any group of people that constitute a workplace both for profit and not for profit companies.)

Businesses are both 1) social institutions designed for specific purposes (such as making money, managing distributions of political power, transmitting knowledge, or spreading religious faith, and 2) communities of people who interact with each other, build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful at a personal level.

Peter Senge (in Capra) characterizes one as a “machine for making money” and the other as a “living being.”

The first type of organization is mechanistic. It comes from classical management theories of the early twentieth century. All the thinking is done by the managers and designers, leaving all the doing to the employees (Taylor, in Capra). A fast food chain is a perfect example of the first type of organization. It doesn’t matter who is hired, they fulfill the same role each time. It is characterized by formal structures–clear lines of communication, coordination, and control. This approach has been successful in increasing efficiency and productivity, but workers in these types of organizations feel animosity and resentment to the organization.

At the same time, there exists the second type of organization in any business–the informal living organization comprised of human beings. This is a fluid and fluctuating network of communication. This is where the organization’s flexibility, creativity, and learning capability reside. Skills are exchanged; tacit knowledge, “common sense”, and meaning are generated. When new people join or leave the organization, the informal network changes or breaks down and restructures itself. Smart managers recognize that there is an interplay between the organization’s formal structures and its informal living networks. Typically, they will allow the formal structures handle the routine work while relying on the informal structures to handle work that doesn’t fit within the routines.

Interesting Quotes:

“People [in organizations] do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.”

“If organizations were truly living communities, buying and selling them would be the equivalent of slavery, and subjecting the lives of their members to predetermined goals would be seen as dehumanizing.”

“A machine can be controlled; a living system . . . can only be disturbed. Working wtih the processes inherent in living systems means that we do not need to spend a lot of energy to move an organization. There is no need to push, pull, or bully it to make it change. For or energy are not the issue; the issue is meaning.”

“…intelligent, alert people rarely carry out instructions exactly to the letter.”

On the profound conflict between biological time and computer time:

“People feel that they have hardly any time for quiet reflection, and since reflective consciousness is one of the defining characteristics of human nature, the results are profoundly dehumanizing.”

“What to do with that spare time [created through technology and increased efficiency] becomes a question of values. It can be distributed among the individuals in the organization–thus creating time for them to reflect, organize themselves, network, and gather for informal conversations–or the time can be extracted from the organization and turned into profits for its top executives and shareholder by making people work more and thus increasing the company’s productivity.”