Many of us who have worked in organizations fool ourselves into believing something that just isn’t really true. We think of organizational boundaries as something real, when in fact, it’s just a concept.
Sure, boundaries matter from a legal point of view, but that perspective also creates a distortive field that obscures a more important underlying economic reality – a reality marked by deep and intrinsic interconnection.
New technologies are blurring organizational boundaries on many fronts. A number of excellent organizational thinkers have written about this shift (e.g. The Connected Company), so I won’t elaborate on how and why it’s happening here. Instead, I want to leave you with a conceptual frame to help you see your organization in a new light.
Say hello to the “holon.”
But first, let me as a question. Where does your toe end and your foot begin? If you were to cut off a toe at the exact place where it ends and your foot begins, where would that be? Really picture it in your head for a moment because it will help you get a visceral sense for how arbitrary the division is between your toe and your foot. And that’s not even considering the phalanges bone in your toe and how it’s embedded even deeper into your foot, let alone how the nerves in your toe run all the way up your spine and into your brain.
You see, conceptually speaking, we can think of a toe as something distinct, but practically speaking, it’s hard to separate it from the rest of your foot without really messing up the foot in the process. That’s because your toe is part of a holon.
A holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. Your lungs are a whole organ, and a part of your body. Leaves, branches and trees are also holons: parts nested in parts, coming together as a whole.
When you learn to see them, holons are everywhere in nature.
Holons are everywhere in our economy too. People are distinct entities and a part of the organizations in which they work. Organizations are distinct entities and a part of the markets in which they operate. Each layer is a distinct, conceptual whole while simultaneously being an integral part of something greater. They aren’t one or the other; they’re both.
What we’re talking about here is an ancient notion – the ultimate inseparability of all things – the oneness of the universe. It’s not just some abstract philosophy, but a really important shift in perspective that organizational leaders will need to make in order to compete in a radically networked economy.