Are Organizations Alive? A Different Take on the Evolution of Technology

With each passing year, organizations act more and more like living entities thanks to the evolution of technology.

The notion that organizations might be a form of life is a radical perspective. It is useful as metaphor, but through this and future articles, I hope to persuade you that an “organization as life” perspective is more than just metaphor.

Life as Organization

For now, consider the long arc of life on our planet. Look beyond the evolution of individual species, to the larger-scale emergence of new orders of organization. By this, I mean shifts such as that from molecules to biological cells, from single-celled to multicellular organisms, and from individual organisms to social units. These are the big jumps in the organizational complexity of life, and I believe we are about to experience another.

Integration is the driving force in these jumps. New, more complex, wholes emerge by transcending individual components, and they do this with new forms of communication and organizational structures. Biology has many examples, including cellular membranes and receptors, pheromones and social signals, as well as language.

Over and over, life has demonstrated its uncanny ability to grow in complexity, and it does this by organizing itself.

Organization is life. Life is organization. The two are inseparably linked.

Organization as Life

A new order of life is emerging, and doing so, once again, through organization. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, when talking about business and other structures for coordinating economic, social and political activity, we use the generic term “organization.” How strange then, that the new organization of life may well be the organization.

Like earlier leaps, this newest one is also a story of integration: a transcendent whole, far greater than the sum of it’s individual parts. Only now, the parts are very familiar, for they are human beings and technology.

In fact, it’s this familiarity that allows this new organization of life to hide in plain sight. We work inside it. We buy lattes from it. We have appendectomies on its operating tables.  We’re so used to interacting with it that we don’t see it for what it truly is.

That’s going to change though, as our organizations begin to feel less and less familiar to us.

A Changing Partnership

Today, most of us see businesses as collections of people. Sure, these people are organized around some revenue-generating purpose, but at a basic psychological level, they’re just people, like you and me.

Now reflect for a moment on your interactions with a powerful brand like Amazon. Note how virtually none of your points of contact with it involve a direct connection with a human being. It’s all mediated by software. An even more dramatic example is Facebook’s recently acquired WhatsApp, which when it was acquired, supported 14 million active users with just 55 employees. That’s a lot of people on the outside being coordinated by very few people on the inside through the transformative power of software. (But that’s another story.)

When we interact with our most modern organizations, we’re already no longer interacting with just a bunch of other humans. We’re interacting with something much bigger and much more complex. The increased footprint of technology in our organizations causes us to experience them differently, to see them as somehow more alien. And that sensation will become much stronger once artificial intelligence becomes prominent in organizations – which is only a matter of time.

Perhaps organizations have always been a form of life though. They certainly are complex, adaptive systems, and physicist Geoffrey West has shown that they share many surprising properties with the living systems of nature.

Anthills and chimpanzee troops are part of that blurry line between natural and social organization. We humans made our mark on the world as profoundly social creatures, and eventually learned to augment our social organization with tools. The momentum was slow at first, but as with any exponential growth curve, the later phases have been blindingly fast, and powerful. The evolution of technology is so powerful, in fact, that it now rivals humans in organizing ourselves.

From what was initially a social organization of humans using tools, something new has emerged. The evolution of technology is creating a new type of organization that is no longer purely social. What it is, we still don’t fully understand.

Ghost in the Shell

I am not suggesting the human element will disappear, though I do believe our role in organizations will be quite different from what it is today.

These changes raise important economic and societal questions, but perhaps even more important are the implications for what comes next. As with earlier jumps in organizational complexity, will these new entities retain elements of what came before them? Will they retain the human spirit, our creativity, compassion, volition and self reflection?

The future of technology and of our organizations is not set. We determine that future by the choices we make today. If we want whatever comes next to reflect what is most worth saving in us, then that is precisely the programming – the teaching – that we need to pass on through the way we run our organizations.

The clock is ticking.

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