Autopoietic Systems

A large variety of phenomena can be swept into the general category of systems, so it is fair to ask what kind of systems we are talking about.  The short answer, which says a lot about our subject and our point of view, is that enterprises are autopoietic social systems. The aspects of autopoiesis that are most relevant include the interplay of closure and openness, and the ongoing co-creation between the parts and the whole within self-created boundaries. This does not force us to take a strong position on whether an enterprise is a living system. Surely a human social system is in a different class than biological life in the form of an organism. But to the extent that autopoiesis implies life-like characteristics, we will say that the architecture of enterprising sociality must account for life-like behavior.

A biological system is closed inasmuch as it creates its own boundary, within which its processes create its parts, which it integrates into itself as it creates its own structure. The biological system can also be perceived as open, in the sense that von Bertalanffy  describes. It is a local defiance of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. It is sustained through structural coupling with its environment, exchanging chemical compounds in gaseous, liquid and solid form, as well as light and other electromagnetism.

The enterprise, as an institutional system, is both open and closed in a similar fashion. As the biological system is open to its needed inputs and outputs (transputs), the social system of enterprise is open to relational interactions with other social systems in the environment. Since it is also composed of relational interactions, this is an interesting analog of the chemical compounds that flow through the biological system. In the one case chemical reactions beget chemical reactions inside and between systems, and in the other case relational interactions beget relational interactions within and among systems. Of course the social system is also open to all the biological transputs by virtue of the participation of humans as biological systems. But more importantly, many of the relational interactions of social systems are designed and evolve to manage the biological transputs.  Even if we choose not to see them as living by some strict definition of life, enterprises and other human social systems are composed of the stuff of life and can have quite lifelike behavior.