Living Systems?

Interestingly, this is not an outlandish point of view for many people. Business executives often use living systems metaphors when speaking about the enterprises they lead. Sam Palmisano, current CEO of IBM is quoted in an interview as saying, “An organic system, which is what a company is, needs to adapt. And we think values–that’s what we call them today at IBM, but you can call them “beliefs” or “principles” or “precepts” or even “DNA”–are what enable you to do that. They let you change everything, from your products to your strategies to your business model, but remain true to your essence, your basic mission and identity.”  Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a retired IBM executive and technological evangelist says, “While business systems are clearly engineered, that is, designed, built and managed by people, they share many characteristics with biological systems, in particular, the need to be flexible and adaptable so they can evolve and survive as their environment changes. The connection between business and biological systems is not new, but it is particularly important in these times given our fast changing, global, highly competitive marketplace. It seems that the key for a company to stay alive, in spite of the odds and market pressures, is to have something in its basic culture - its DNA - that somehow keeps it going and enables it to adapt itself to wildly different market environments.”

The following functions have been abstracted from several scholarly definitions of what it means to be living.  The synthesis of definitions from these sources reveals key dimensions and dynamic tensions over which living systems range:
•    A living system maintains an identity over time in the face of changing conditions.
•    Like all systems it is embedded in an environment.
•    A living system creates its own boundary.
•    It forms itself from parts that it both creates and interrelates.
•    It can be seen as a closed system within an open system: a structurally closed autopoietic system within a thermodynamically open system.
•    It maintains dynamic stability within a flux of material, energy, and information.
•    It has autonomy as a system and interdependence with the environment of other living systems.
•    Autonomous interdependence leads to both cooperation and competition with other living systems.
•    A living system undergoes a life cycle that includes emergence as a living entity, sustainment of itself over a certain period of time, and then ultimately disintegration.
•    Sustainment requires the abilities to: spontaneously emerge from a codified design, self-regulate, manage variety, self-regenerate, maintain relationship among elements, grow, metabolize, adapt, respond to stimuli, learn, form a purpose, decide, communicate, produce, and reproduce.

The point of this recitation is to provide a framework for thinking about architectural viewpoints on enterprise. Whether enterprises are living or merely life-like, the architecture of an enterprise should be able to reflect its fundamentally life-like characteristics. To what extent the foregoing is a meaningful characterization of human social systems such as enterprises is the key question. To the extent it is meaningful then these core issues for living systems provide some indicators of the dimensions and constructs that we might expect to see in a full-blown architectural representation of a business or other human enterprise.