June 10, 2004

Organic Organization – Synthetic Organization

The most efficient way to organize things is hierarchy. This applies to everything from your desk drawers to Linnaean taxonomy to the army to Ford Motors. You divide things, concepts, people, tasks into ever smaller units, at each step organizing as efficiently as possible, choosing your steps so as to maximize human ability (too big a step, and it will be hard for a person to organize it, too small a step and you’ll be wasting human potential).

I suspect that a lot of my readers will be cringing inside by the time they finish reading that paragraph. They imagine themselves living or working in such a framework, being a cog in a human machine. Somehow, they feel such an existence would rob them of their humanity. (Many such people are also ardent supporters of socialism – an ideology explicitly modeled on just this notion of efficiency. Go figure.)

Artists, on the other hand, are frequently almost anarchists, refusing to be tied down to any human organization, refusing to cooperate in any grand task that will inhibit their freedom – all in the name of creativity. There is no creativity without freedom.

Indeed, efficiency and creativity are opposing forces – the former eliminates freedom, while the latter requires it. But what do you do if you are in a creative business? You have to produce. You have to be efficient. You have to compete. The laws of the marketplace won’t stop for you. One answer is to compromise. In the business world there is a particular compromise that is known as focusing on your area of expertise. It means don’t try to be creative in areas that are not your expertise, just try to do a good job implementing what is known. Save your creative resources for the one area that is most important to your business.

This strategy is important for all businesses. But what do you if your area of expertise is in a constant state of flux? This is what I call high-tech – when the technology upon which your industry is based is changing rapidly. There was a time when the internal combustion engine was high-tech – this was the era of the founding of the motor companies – Ford Motors, General Motors, etc. Now the technology is well known and the focus of the industry has shifted from creativity to efficiency.

Today’s high-tech is software (not all software, though), bio-tech, and communications. (I’ve probably missed some…) In these industries you see a flattening of hierarchies. But if hierarchies are flattened (i.e. there is less hierarchy – hierarchy is less used) then how are these businesses organized? The answer: rules.

I can feel my readers cringing again. Rules! You’ve replaced the tyranny of hierarchy with the tyranny of rules! Well, not necessarily. If there is a rule that you have to stop your car at a red light, does that increase freedom or decrease it? Of course, it decreases your freedom to drive through red lights, but aggregate effect of everybody following this rule is that it increases your freedom to drive.

One of the amazing things about rule-based organization is that you see it everywhere. Look out the window at the nearest tree. Is it organized or disorganized? In fact, it is highly organized; its branches are arranged symmetrically so it won’t fall over, it gathers energy from the sun, and nutrients from the earth, it grows and reproduces. But a tree has no central nervous system. There is no boss giving orders that propagate down the hierarchy, telling it what to do. Instead, each cell is programmed with a set of rules that tell it what to do. And if you step close and look at it carefully, it loses its symmetry and its apparent organization. From up close it looks chaotic. But because each cell has the right rules, somehow a high level of order underlies the apparent chaos.

What can be said of a tree can be said also about the ecosystem as a whole. There the rules are simpler – survival, where each organism is free to follow that rule according to its own strategy. The result, however, is a system – an ecosystem – that has a very particular kind of organization. I call it Organic Organization. It’s opposite, the organization of hierarchies – of the assembly line, of armies, and of government – I call Synthetic Organization.

One of the most astounding examples of Organic Organization is the one you’re using right now to read this post: the Internet. The technology to build the Internet was around for something like 30 years before it took off. It took that long because the real innovation of the Internet was not its technology, but what software engineers call its architecture – the rules of the system. When the right rules were implemented, it took off. The Internet is based on four sets of rules: IP (Internet Protocol), TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), HTTP (Hypertext Transmission Protocol), and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). These protocols are carefully constructed to increase the freedom of their users. Of course, they decrease your freedom to communicate in the sense that you are not allowed to “say whatever you want”. You have to follow the rules, and sometimes it can be a real burden. But by following the rules, you can do great things never dreamt of before.

It is a sad fact (sad to the creative anarchist, that is) that there are many things that cannot be done by one person alone – that can only be done by groups. But there is a way to square this circle, to increase your freedom and creativity, while simultaneously becoming part of an organized group – a properly chosen set of rules, an Organic Organization.

UPDATE: I was supposed to answer the riddle of the previous post in this post. But I’ve written enough for now. I’ll have to push it off one more post. But maybe you can guess where I’m going…

Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 10, 2004 04:21 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

David: In reading your excellent and moving post, I thought about the work of Nobel prize winner Ilya Pirigine on Self Organizing Systems. Here is a giant bibliography of related articles.
Prob'ly Den Beste has read a lot of these-- I have too!
In the 90's Artificial intelligence paid hommage to rule-based sysems, and they work well for some applications-- but research and application have moved on to genetic algorithms and neural nets, kinds of 'self-organizing systems' themselves. Do you think the rule based organization you describe is a natural step in the evolution of increasingly efficient systems?

Posted by: twisterella at June 11, 2004 04:33 PM Permalink


Glad to make your acquaintance, I've seen your footprints all over the web!

I have never been on the academic side of computer science, but I think that the work being done in cellular automata is the direction of my thinking. (This is quite different from what we in industry call rule-based systems, though of course, the behavior of the cells is rule-based in the sense that I mean.)

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at June 13, 2004 12:04 AM Permalink

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