3.3 Living organizations

If we are to understand information systems in terms of the human activity systems they serve, it behooves us to examine the nature of human activity systems (organizations) more closely.  There is a long tradition that supports thinking of organizations as living entities.

One of the earliest applications of general systems theory to human activity systems, is the living systems model .  This model abstracts a common set of functions and subsystems at several lev-els of recursion, from a single living cell, up through very high levels of human organization.  These recurring subsystems include material and energy subsystems (ingestor, converter, motor, storage, producer, etc.) and information processing subsystems (memory, encoder, decoder, decider, channel and net, etc.).  This model can be used to discover the role or purpose that is served by a particular organization within the larger system it is part of (e.g., the phone company plays the role of channel and net in society), and it can be used to understand the functions within the system of interest. Both the phone company and a toy manufacturer will have all of the infor-mation processing subsystems, in one form or another, created and maintained by information systems professionals.

The viable systems model is another view of organizations, from bee colonies to nations .  Every organization (viable system) exists within some environment and has a management function that is accomplished according to some mental model.  Operating units are responsible for producing the primary results (products and services) of the organization.  There is a function responsible for coordinating the set of mental management models and another that uses a direct command channel to give orders to the operating elements.  Another important function is responsible for looking outward into the environment as a whole, and into the future.  There is a function that mediates between the current and future needs of the organization, ideally consisting of the most senior management.  Each of these omnipresent subsystems gives rise to specific information requirements within any organization.

More recently, the concept of the learning organization has emerged from the tradition of systems thinking.  Peter Senge provides powerful underlying systemic processes that can drive or inhibit business success.   Gareth Morgan proposes several ways of viewing organizations as living things, including organisms, cultures, political systems, and even brains.  “Whereas in traditional theories of organization, attention has been devoted to the way communication links are established between different elements of an organization, the brain metaphor helps us appreciate that an organization can itself be regarded as a cognitive system, embodying a structure of thought as well as a pattern of action”.  

Michael Rothschild has proposed a radical biological, information centered view of the economy and business.  “Orthodox economists still envision the economy as a predictable clockwork mechanism where historical change is irrelevant because all movement is cyclical ... After DNA was discovered ... [and] bolstered by stunning breakthroughs in cellular biology, molecular biol-ogy, paleontology and ecology ... it was possible to completely rethink economics ... as an evolv-ing ecosystem. ... Genetic and technologic information, despite manifest differences in the branching patterns of their evolutionary histories, are nonetheless members of the same class of natural phenomena.  Both are living, evolving information systems”.

Kevin Kelly goes even further.  He surveys the fields of robotics, artificial life, natural and artifi-cial ecologies, computer games and art, the internet, forecasting, and cybernetics, and makes the case for a biology and ecology that includes organisms, organizations and technology.  “The realm of the born - all that is in nature - and the realm of the made - all that is humanly con-structed - are becoming one. ... The challenge is simply stated:  Extend the company’s internal network outward to include all those with whom the company interacts in the marketplace. Spin a grand web to include employees, suppliers, regulators, and customers; they all become part of your company’s collective being. ... The metaphor of IBM as an organism needs overhauling.  IBM is an ecosystem”.

This sample of systems literature demonstrates that there is value in considering the human activ-ity systems of business as living, thinking systems.  That view leads effortlessly to the notion of the human mind as a model for a malleable learning mechanism that can enable competitive business adaptation.