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The company as an organism

It’s time to think about what companies really are, and to design with that in mind. Companies are not so much machines as complex, dynamic, growing systems. As they get larger, acquiring smaller companies, entering into joint ventures and partnerships, and expanding overseas, they become “systems of systems” that rival nation-states in scale and reach.


So what happens if we rethink the modern company, if we stop thinking of it as a machine and start thinking of it as a complex, growing system? What happens if we think of it less like a machine and more like an organism? Or even better, what if we compared the company with other large, complex human systems, like, for example, the city?


Cities are large, complex, systems, but we don’t really try to control them. In Stephen B. Johnson‘s book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software he quotes complexity pioneer John Holland:


Cities have no central planning commissions that solve the problem of purchasing and distributing supplies… How do these cities avoid devastating swings between shortage and glut, year after year, decade after decade?


No, we don’t try to control cities, but we can manage them well. And if we start to look at companies as complex systems instead of machines, we can start to design and manage them for productivity instead of continuously hovering on the edge of collapse.


Cities aren’t just complex and difficult to control. They are also more productive than their corporate counterparts. In fact, the rules governing city productivity stand in stark contrast to the ominous “3/2 rule” that applies to companies. As companies add people, productivity shrinks. But as cities add people, productivity actually grows.


A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that as the working population in a given area doubles, productivity (measured in this case by the rate of invention) goes up by 20%. This finding is borne out by study after study. If you’re interested in going deeper, take a look at this recent New York Times article: A Physicist Solves the City.


The Connected Company.

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Taken on February 8, 2011