Monday 25 May 2009

Organisations in systems theory

Fritz B. Simon, psychiatrist-turned-management consultant (sic!) is a prolific author of highly legible books bringing together systems theory and real life practice. His Introduction to Organisational Systems Theory (my -slightly inaccurate- translation of the German title, Einf├╝hrung in die systemische Organisationstheorie) is delightful to read, but so condensed that any attempt to summarise it would fail. I just want to share a couple of highlights...

A salient feature of organisations is that they can do one thing and its opposite at the same time. Think of an oil company which causes horrid environmental degradation in, say, Nigeria, while funding wildlife protection schemes in some other part of the planet. Such apparent inconsistency is not necessarily a symptom of dysfunction. In the opposite, it is one of the reasons why organisations come into being: when you're on your own, you can only do one thing in one place at a time; when you're an organised group, you can be in many places and do many things at the same time; and if it serves your purpose to do things that contradict each other, then that's possible, too.

And what is an organisation's first purpose? Here we come to autopoiesis, a term coined by neurobiologist H.Maturana to desigate the process by which all living beings continuously create themselves and keep themselves alive. Applied to organisations, autopoiesis means that the main purpose of an organisation is its self-perpetuation, regardless of stated missions and aims. Organisations are living beings, and living beings care about their own survival. This is a tough piece to swallow for development agencies, who like to say that their job is to put themselves out of business. But it may explain some of the apparent inconsistencies in our behaviour...

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