Martin’s Weblog

Welcome To The 21st Century: Business – Go Softly

Technology, culture and society are intricately connected and in the 20th century these relationships constructed a period of cheap, disposable, large scale mass production and consumption. The early business:cultural construct is symbolised by the 1908 Ford Model T car, its production methods and the famous phrase “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”.  Business:culture refined this industrial production:consumption model over the century to what might be regarded as peek saturation in the early noughties and culminating in serious environmental, resource and social pressures and parodied in the Little Britain “computer says no” comedy sketches. For 20th century business:culture there is a “line on the horizon” – an event horizon of environmental and social stress from which there may be no escape.

Through the 20th century business:culture organised itself in the image of its creations and industrial production processes: hard, machine efficient, cheap (costs driven) and disposable (short term) often resulting in effective but dehumanised, rationalist, machine-like, fixed, tightly integrated, command and control organisations on iterative cycles of ever diminishing returns. Perceiving the spirit in the machine as “evil” inefficiency 20th century business:culture exorcised spirits in the machine with a litany of pseudo-scientific, “rationalist” management techniques that externalises people’s motivation resulting in lifeless zombie organisations with forms of organisational learned helplessness  . Organisations became increasingly efficient, industrial and machine like – driving out variation through ever tighter process and quality control systems. “Machine organisations” produce standardised products as efficiently as possible on a large scale and like machines they are dedicated to purpose. “Machine organisations” like machines are dedicated to purpose and designed for equilibrium around a purpose and direction – process and quality systems work as buffers providing negative feedback loops to maintain equilibrium, direction and purpose.

20th century business:culture was highly effective.

What changed?

The environment changed.

Communications technologies accelerated cultural change – from the Model T and car travel in the early 20th century through air travel, radio, TV, telephones through to the Internet and to the web 2.0 revolution. 20th century business:culture connected into these communications revolutions to spin production:consumption at an ever increasing speed – centrifugal forces have started to stress and separate many organisations as they try to meet the problem of producing greater diversity at faster speeds.

The 21st century environment is becoming faster, more diverse and complex – people want greater choice, customisation and speed. 20th century “Machine organisation” is not suited to fast, flexible and complex responses and cannot thrive in an environment of speed, choice and customisation. “Machine organisation” cannot easily cope with complex environments that change ever faster.

While technology, culture and social changes have stressed 20th century “machine organisation” they have at the same time provided the models and tools that can save them.  Just as 20th century organisations used tools and techniques from their environments to create environmentally adapted “machine organisations” then 21st century organisations need to use the tools and techniques of their environments to create environmentally adapted systems.

21st century culture:technology is information-communications rich, symbolised by the Internet and most potently by web 2.0 and the emerging real world, real time, exponential change ideas of web squared. This culture:technology is distributed, decentralised, networked, interactive and collaborative. Organisations operating within information-communications rich environments need become environmentally adapted and become information-communications rich – they need to use web 2.0 type tools and ideas to become loosely coupled, distributed, decentralised, networked, interactive and collaborative. I would describe these organisations as live “organic organisations” – connected to; interactive with, and part of their environment. Their boundaries are soft and “porous”, the separations between employees, customers and competitors are increasingly blurred.  Rather than exorcising human spirit “organic organisations” call back life and spirit by recognising people rather than suppliers, customers and “human resources”.

The ultimate organic organisation we know of is the human brain. Constructed from small and simple parts, intelligence and consciousness emerge from its complex and highly networked organisation. Not only should organisations allow people to use their brains they should also consider organising themselves like brains. A major feature of brains are their plasticity – the ability to re-organise. Plasticity allows the brain to change, learn and be resilient and “according to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom.”  The idea is that through the exercise of rich interconnections an organisation learns, changes and adapts to its environment by networked feedback from itself and its environment.

“Organic organisations” are complex, variable and non-deterministic – this gives them the agility to cope with a similarly complex, variable and non-deterministic environment but at the same time this makes them so different to the “machine organisations”  we have grown up with and within that the change needed is just too scary. However, change is a journey and not a destination and the first step on the journey from “machine organisation” to “organic organisation” starts with the brain – think soft and richly networked.


August 9, 2009 - Posted by | business, culture, society |


  1. Hey there, Martin.

    I’m very sympathetic to these ideas. But there are some difficult areas, too. The observation that a large, organic organization could adapt and change according to necessity raises some interesting questions. How does structure and strategy ensure that the changes don’t inadvertently screw things up? Two groups come up with the same product idea and waste time and money, for instance. Or marketing comes up with a great idea that conflicts with product development?

    Also, a plastic system can create negative change as well as positive change. This brings to mind Enron. The organization was so malleable and susceptible to change from within that a few change agents screwed it up for everyone else.

    (Despite these cautions, I think that organizations far too often stifle creativity and positive change.)

    Best wishes,
    Martin Walker
    Effective, Affordable Brain Fitness Software

    Comment by Brain Training | August 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. Martin,

    I agree with your analysis of the problems with “organic organisations” as I’ve described them. Organic organisations are non deterministic and can, like human brains, become dysfunctional. If approached wrongly I am sure that organic porganisations will end up dysfunctional and even “insane”. Organic organisations would need to be nutured like people – like bringing up a child. It will be a whole new management approach.

    Comment by martinking | August 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] Excerpted from Martin (King?): […]

    Pingback by P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » From Machinic to Organic Organisations | August 31, 2011 | Reply

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