Ecosystems and Formal Hierarchies

On January 26, 2015, in Futures, HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

photo of fish in water representing fish in ecosystem of ocean john susmer january 26 2016
Hierarchy is the way we try to impose rational decision making on an ecosystem.

Ecosystems have to embrace a healthy amount of competition to stay viable. From one angle, they are Darwinian shark tanks full of creatures that eat each other and species that are at war with each other. In an ecosystem, everything is food for everything else.

In spite of that shark eat shark quality, everything in the ecosystem depends on everything else. Without the liberals, there can be no conservatives. Without the krill, no whales. Without the theorist, no practitioner. Without the edgy, no middle. Each part depends on all of the other parts.

In nature, ecosystems are not conscious in a way that we can understand. But, you have to imagine that there is some sort of environment-aware decision making mechanism that allows the whole thing to respond to changes. Ecosystems adapt. They respond. They rearrange in order to move forward.

Ecosystem change happens gracefully because it is so Darwinian. If one organism in the system exhausts its nutritional resources. Something that was not be food becomes food. The pieces rearrange until the requirements for change exceed the ecosystem’s carrying capacity.

More formal human organizations try to operate with a singular pecking order/status system. Rather than what sometimes looks like aggressive chaos, they work to impose order and rationality. These organizations trip over the fact that reality rarely corresponds to rational expectations.

Fueled with adequate levels of capital and will power, they can accomplish enormous things with a hierarchical structure. The model is fantastic for scale execution of engineering challenges. It is a fantastic model for building railroads, skyscrapers, or putting a man on the moon.

But, every formal organization has to contend with its shadow. The informal organization leaks into operations at times of conflict or significant change. This is the way we describe the fact that organizations are ecosystems in spite of our attempts to control and direct them.

When there is someone, some thing or some idea in charge of the organization, the response to change usually requires conscious decision making. Unlike a pure ecosystem, the formal human organization usually includes a conscious feedback loop that processes information about the change and allocates resources to cope with it.

Everyone has watched organizations rearrange themselves by eliminating people who seem to be at the heart of things. This normal part of growth is exactly how contemporary management thinking approaches deviation from its plan. It happens when the organization’s momentum is going left while the hierarchy wants to go right.

This discussion matters because the emerging shape of contemporary organizations increasingly resembles a pure ecosystem. The hard lines between stakeholders are dissolving. Vendors become partners. Customers become employees. Employees become vendors. Investors become managers. Managers become owners.

Something’s happening. Whatever it is changes the way we manage and think about our enterprises.

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