Engineering or Ecosystem?

by Derek Morrison, 19 January 2011

In my 8 April 2010 posting I highlighted Clay Shirky’s online essay The Collapse of Complex Business Models. If Shirky’s essay provided insufficient food for thought then perhaps a recent BBC World Service podcast featuring the views of the management consultant and military historian Stephen Bungay will do the trick.

The BBC WS Business Weeky programme for 14 January 2011 had an interesting item with the unlikely title of “Prussian Management Model” (advance to ~17m 24s if you have downloaded the full podcast). In this item Stephen Bungay argues that, even today in the 21st century, organisational leaders tend to adopt an engineering or scientific model of the organisation, i.e. fundamentalist accolytes of this model would at heart view the organisation as a machine and its personnel as the cogs in said machine. An alternative model, however, Bungay argues is exemplified by the 19th century radical reforms of the previously successful Prussian Army following its resounding defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte. These reformers included Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, Moltke et al who created a model more appropriate to the fast moving unpredictable and sometimes chaotic circumstances of an environment in which technologies and tactics were ever changing; a new and harsh reality which badly needed a non-sclerotic and adaptable approach to decision making rather than a hierarchical “machine” dependent on the flow of orders from the centre.

Referring to this 19th century example of radical change of thinking, Bungay contends it is now better to think of the organisation as an organism or ecosystem in which groups of individuals are given some autonomy to respond to fast changing circumstances without waiting to receive orders from the centre. But yet, he suggests, our thinking remains inappropriately embedded in the engineering or scientific approach to management; a model which emerged from a different context in which the business environment was stable and predictable. The context now is one of increased competition, inability to predict outcomes and interconnectedness; all of which contribute to mega turbulence, e.g. the near total world collapse of the banking system of 2008.

In essence, the “organisation as an organism” model prioritses the dissemination of a very simple message of what needs to be done and why, but leaving how to do it to the functional group and its leader. Bungay argues that most organisations have some elements of this organism approach but then mess it all up with the legacy of scientific management and so simply create confusion, e,g. the endless proliferation of targets, the endless demand for detail, Bungay suggests that this is because making our strategic intent clear is not easy and that most managers do not write clearly or give good briefings devoid of ambiguity.

This is all stimulating stuff but it’s ironic that we now need look to early 19th century military reforms (remember that’s not long after the French Revolution) for models more suited to the organisational environments we now find ourselves inhabiting. An environment – to push the military analogy a little more – which requires not robots but smart “soldiers”, teams of “special forces” rather than mass armies, and an urgent rethink of how to avoid and reduce the drag of unnecessarily complex systems and processes that remove flexibility and adaptability in the “organism”.

At the time of posting there are 26 days to listen to or download the podcast for yourselves.

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