Today is Earth Day, April 22, 2016.
I recently heard a podcast episode from Radiolab entitled “Cellmates”. It tells a strange story that starts some 4 billion years ago with single-celled organisms floating in a primordial sea. It puts forth a theory about how life on Earth emerged from tiny bags of chemicals floating in this early sea, to the vast menagerie of creatures that came after. The theory is based on a book entitled The Vital Question, by Nick Lane.
A key event in the story was said to have occurred about 2 billion years ago when two types of single-celled organisms merged, seemingly by accident (one gaining internal hardware and software from the other) to make possible the large multi-celled organisms that came later. Present-day mitochondria within all of our cells provide the evidence that this early merger took place. Much later, early human-like creatures appear on the scene, use fire to cook their food, and develop big brains as a result. The rest, as they say, is history. A link to the RadioLab episode is provided below.
Inspired by the story, it struck me that organizations can be thought of as the next logical step in this lineage if we take a long-term view. Consider what organizations represent: within them, humans are encased within a super-organism (if only during part of their day), gain an energy source, ban together with other like-minded individuals to find purpose, and accomplish things together that they could not do on their own. A successful organization is a form of super-consciousness, often endowed with considerable power and resources over time. It is no wonder that organizations large and small dominate the world around us.
We no longer live in the heady days of free market capitalism that Adam Smith wrote about in the 1770’s. Almost all organizations were very small at that time. No firm was large enough to require middle management. Owners managed, and managers owned. From the 1840’s on, free market capitalism was gradually replaced by managerial capitalism. Firms grew by bringing more and more transactions under their control (inside themselves) rather than conducting them in the free market. As the century progressed, the railroads grew, middle management was born, and bureaucratic forms flourished, all part of the economic forces bringing stability and efficiency to the production and distribution processes of larger organizations after the US Civil War (i.e., after 1865).
Now some 150 years later, we are still under the spell of managerial capitalism (managers are largely in control, not the market), and many firms have grown to very large size, serving domestic and international markets. Yet an organization can be viewed as good or bad for our world, depending upon which values are expressed in its processes. The ‘bad’ category would include terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda, and the seemingly ever-present drug cartels. These are types of organizations that do not embody positive human values (e.g., honesty, respect for the law, peacefulness, the environmental conservation, etc.). Even where so-called ‘good’ organizations operate, the world as we know it may be threatened by negative externalities that are the byproduct of global economic activity (e.g., Global Warming, sea level rise, depletion of scarce resources, etc.). What to do?
Well, where organizations create problems, only organizations can solve them. Organizations will save the planet, or not. Most of us expect to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Just as DNA provided a biological code to replicate and evolve organisms from the distant past to the present, new management theory and practice is needed to provide a template for the coming age (one of organizational effectiveness?).
If you have followed the podcast available on this site (www.AgeofOE.com) you will know that effectiveness in our view is about converting an organization’s supply-side intentions (to serve its environment with it offerings) into demand-side behaviors (uptake, adoption or use of those offerings). To fix the world, we need organizations that search for and demonstrate positive causal chains that work, then help replicate them elsewhere through other organizations.
Serve your environment & be rewarded in return. It can be a motto for business, government, or nonprofits in the coming age.
Charles G. Chandler, Ph.D.
Link to Radiolab episode: “Cellmates”