The End of the Era of Machines: Towards a New Organizational Metaphor

May 23, 2019 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

Metaphors define the way in which we think about and act in the world.  We often think about an organization as if it were a machine, but it is time to imagine an organization as a living organism, with all of the attending implications.

Things are going to slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore.

(Leonard Cohen, “The Future”)


A Tangled Ball of Wool                   

I watched the communications technician who had been called in to change the telecom system. Helplessly, he faced the electrical closet that was filled with entangled communications wires.  It took him hours to even begin to map out the connections between the communications points.

Have you ever tried to untangle a ball of wool? Patiently, laboriously, you might be able to loosen it up, but the core tangle stays tight. Now think about dynamic threads, and that while you are trying to undo them, they are constantly becoming even further entangled in each other, and the ball keeps changing its shape in front of your very eyes. In many organizations that are trying to lead a process of organizational renewal and change, that’s about the way efforts to maintain order seem.

From A Complicated Organization to a Complex-Chaotic Organization

The world view of the industrial revolution was perfected by Frederick Taylor as a methodology for mass production, leading to complicated organizations that function like a machine – the organizational machine. The organizations, which were, indeed, complicated, could be broken down into simpler sub-units, and so, with a great degree of certainty, it was possible to determine cause and result. The organization was based on hierarchical management, with a clear division between the brain and the executive functions. The division of the system into specialized units was intended to simplify the complicated machine, to observe its behavior and to operate the organizational “electric cabinet” efficiently and successfully.

The past few decades have been characterized by the technological, communications, information and mobility revolutions, which transformed many organizations into a tightly-wound balls of wool. Today, organizations network with and are connected to more factors than can be counted, each of which exerts reciprocal and unexpected influences on its surroundings.  Due to these any dimensions, it has become difficult to identify the connections between cause and effect: Welcome to the complex-chaotic environment.

The progression from a complicated to a chaotic environment demands a change in mindset, similar to the change that professional rugby players experience when, without any preparation, they begin to play soccer and discover that their long years of training are a hindrance to their professional abilities. The more professional and experienced a player is, the more helpless he will feel if forced to deal with changes in the rules of the game.  Experience, habits and worldviews can quickly turn into traps.

Managerial Responsibility in a Chaotic World?

The same is true in the world of management.  Experienced managers will find that they no longer know what kind of intervention is needed, and that use of force can quickly transform a minor problem into a comprehensive crisis. The results of interventions can no longer be predicted, and the increasingly twisted ball of wool proves that it is necessary to create a change in mindset.

Perception of the organization as a machine – complicated as it may be – is no longer appropriate as the environment becomes increasing chaotic. We need a new organizational metaphor that presents a model suited to an unpredictable and rapidly-changing environment (James Gleick, Chaos – Making a New Science, 2011; Now, it would appear that the organization has turned into a Frankenstein and that the anticipated order has turned into uncontrollable chaos. It is about time to rethink our organizations.

Learning from Mother Nature

Nature can serve as a good source for an alternative model of management and provide a design for organizations existing in a dynamic and chaotic situation.  Nature’s life systems must constantly adjust to changes in their environment and they must be adaptive, flexible, vital, and resilient in order to survive.  Unlike machines, nature’s life systems maintain a constant “dialogue” with their environment – they adjust themselves to the conditions of the environment and die or wear out as part of the circle of life.

For example:

  • The number of leaves on a tree adjust to the level of light in the environment, so that during the winter, their number dwindle until, in some cases, they completely fall off.
  • The thickness and color of an animal’s fur changes according to the seasons. In winter, the fur is thicker and darker, in order to protect the body’s temperature.
  • In earthquake-prone areas, the roots of trees are flexible and free to move in response to quakes.
  • When a flood destroys part of an ant-nest, the number of ants allotted to the rebuilding of the next increases automatically, and if the chances of finding food increase in the spring, the number of ants allocated to food collection increases accordingly.

Changing the managerial narrative

The prevailing perception of an organization as a machine is a trap and a hindrance that causes damage to organizational resilience.  The old managerial narrative defines the way in which managers and workers think about the organization (as, for example, an automatic mechanical machine, etc.) and this distorts the image of reality and attempts to cope with it.

The organization as a “machine” excels at maintaining a high level of order, but the signs of deterioration become increasingly visible as the environment becomes increasingly chaotic.  The alternative managerial narrative creates an image of an organization as a living organism that responds dynamically, adaptively and flexibly to changes in the environment.

In our next column, we will characterize the nature of the Super-Organism, which maintains its resilience in the face of changes and disruptions and is a dynamic organization that takes advantage of the chaotic environment in order to grow and thrive.

Dr. Boaz Tamir, ILE.

Dr. Yael Helfman-Cohen, CEO, Israel Biomicry Organization.

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