04 August 2006

Valence Theory of the Living Organization

For those who are following the development of my thesis ideas. This is a fairly lengthy and dense post.

I've been reading Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life). Capra writes that a system can be said to be living if it satisfies the following criteria: It possesses a pattern of organization (“the configuration of relationships among the system’s components that determines the system’s essential characteristics”), structure (“the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization”), linked by process in living systems. Process is the continual embodiment of pattern in structure, within the context of a system in which all three are mutually embodied (as opposed to, say, a mechanical system in which process is external, as in the mind of a designer). Capra maintains that
all three criteria are totally interdependent. The pattern of organization can be recognized only if it is embodied in a physical structure, and in living systems this embodiment is an ongoing process. Thus structure and process are inextricably linked. One could say that the three criteria – pattern, structure, and process – are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon of life (p. 160).
Capra identifies Maturana and Varela’s autopoietic network as the pattern of relationships, Prigogine’s dissipative structures, as the embodied structure of that pattern, and cognition, drawing somewhat from Bateson, but leaning more toward Maturana and Varela’s Santiago theory, as the linking process. The Santiago theory posits that mind (cognition) is a process that links perception, emotion and action, and therefore applies equally to all living entities, irrespective of the presence of a brain or nervous system. It does not necessarily involve thinking in the human sense. Essentially, it recognizes that cognition, as distinct from thinking and abstraction, involves environmental perception, a resultant change in structure and behaviour (“emotion”), and a (non-deterministic, and therefore unpredictable) response, through which the system adapts to changes in its environment through autopoietic processes of self-generation and self-perpetuation.

Patterns of relationships within organizations that result in self-forming, self-bounding, and self-sustaining forms can be understood as autopoietic networks. Maturana and Varela each have differing opinions on the applicability of autopoiesis in social systems. Maturana denies it; Varela sees that organizational closure applies, but not the self-production aspect of autopoiesis. Niklas Luhmann sees communication as the process of production in social autopoiesis.
Social systems use communication as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communications that are … produced and reproduced by a network of communications and that cannot exist outside of such a network (Luhmann in Capra, p. 212).
In this case, network closure is defined by culture and establishing a context within which common meaning is made.

A BAH-conceived-organization [BAH=Bureaucracy, Administrative control, Hierarchy] is not self forming or self-sustaining, since the fact of bureaucracy and administration means that these organizations are formed and sustained by outside influences.

The embodiment of patterns of relationships into a structure might be understood in terms of dissipative structures. Dissipative structures are stable forms that characteristically exist far from equilibrium and maintain their stability by passing energy and matter through them. Without a constant flow, the structure collapses; with an increased flow of energy beyond a point of homeostasis, the structure becomes unstable and chaotic, until it reaches a bifurcation point, beyond which it regains stability at a higher degree of complexity – a phenomenon known as emergence. A BAH-organization seeks stability, but more tellingly, tends to prefer stasis and equilibrium in many, if not most, cases. For example, monopolies tend to be favoured by those in monopolistic positions, BAH management hates and resists change in favour of procedures that enforce strict rules in which control is paramount. These are all antithetical to dissipative structures, since they tend towards equilibrium, rather than existing far from it.

The link between pattern and structure is process and, specifically in the case of living systems, that process is cognition. Cognition in this sense involves perception, emotion (i.e., structural behavioural changes as a result of a stimulus), and response.

The key contribution of A Valence Theory of the Living Organization (new working title; how do you like it?) will be in the examination of the process of cognition in the context of reconceiving organizations as living entities. I propose that my valence theory of organization is a useful link between patterns of relationships and their embodiment, since valence theory describes the precise, not to mention complex, nature of that embodiment. It removes the external influences that exist in the BAH-organization used to generate, bound, and perpetuate it. Valence theory defines the nature and complex interactions of relationships that enable organizational autopoiesis. Additionally, the entire business of effective theory (as an extension to espoused and in-use theories, as well as the addition of the orientation axis to the competing values framework) provides the requisite perception component of the process of cognition.

An organization conceived according to valence theory is an autopoietic, dissipative structure that exists far from equilibrium, with cognitive processes embedded in, and described by, valence theory: by Capra’s criteria, it’s alive! The implications of this realization for every aspect of management are as profound as they are extensive.

  • Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books.

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Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your comment, Kevin. I would guess that you are biologist (or at the very least, studying to become one), and hence your comment is grounded in a fairly literal (if not positivist) conception of life. Nothing wrong there, of course - that is the context within which you create meaning appropriate for your discipline.

The question I am considering is not one of necessarily changing the paradigm of life, but rather the paradigm of organization management, which is the domain of my inquiry. Is it useful for managers - or perhaps more important, society at large - to consider an organization as a "living entity" (not necessarily a biological entity) in terms of understanding the consequences of actions taken by that organization's component members? In particular, is it useful to consider the works of Prigogine, and Maturana and Varela, (and even Alfred Lotka) as applied to understanding organization theory as complexity phenomena in the context of a complex society? Capra’s work provides a useful metaphor for a constructivist ground, (and not merely for the "new age crowd") within which our understanding of organization can be shifted from an industrial-age paradigm to one that is somewhat more contemporary.

Mark Federman said...

By the way, Capra is far from a new-age flake: "Born in Vienna, Austria, Capra earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna in 1966. He has done research on particle physics and systems theory, and has written popular books on the implications of science, notably The Tao of Physics, subtitled An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. The Tao of Physics makes an assertion that physics and metaphysics are both inexorably leading to the same knowledge. His works all share a similar subtext: that "there are hidden connections between everything". Capra is both a Buddhist and a Catholic Christian."

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why Capra wants to split life into three parts like this. As an example, his interest in separating structure out from organisation seems to imply that the relationships that define a particular class of autopoietic system do not depend on what that system is contructed of.
Therefore, if I was to recreate the entire system of relationships necessary to describe a cat out of metalic structures, would I still have a cat? This seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater as the relationships contained within a cat may only be physically possible when constructed from the materials cats are usually made from.
Metaphorically speaking, (and I loathe to use a business example) if I have a candy business with workers that make lollipops, then I can quite happily take those relationships out and put them into making hammers. I still need the same arrangement of people doing different steps, associating with accountants, managers and sales staff in exactly the same way and all I've done is swap the machines, sugar and flavorings for some different machines, metal and plastic. But you'd hardly tell me that in both cases the class that I have described is a lollipop shop.

I suppose this is why Capra introduced "Process". In my lollipop-hammer example, each of the machines has a different process that they perform.

Overall, I just don't really get it. Instead of building a synthesis from first principles of systems, we instead seem to be analysing a system into parts.

Any help?

Mark Federman said...

Paddy, with no disrespect intended, I think the best thing for you to do if you care to understand Capra's argument is to read Capra. It's not that he is attempting to decompose or "analyze a system into parts." Rather, he is suggesting a method of understanding the concept of life in complexity terms that is not (necessarily) biological nor deterministic.

Specifically to your example, describing a cat out of a metal structure, and even externally imposing the processes, would not yield a living cat in either conventional terms or Capra's. In the latter case, the resulting system would not be autopoietic, for example, and likely not a dissipative structure, either.

Neither Capra nor I are seeking to negate any other system of consideration in favour of this one (i.e., there doesn't have to be a "winner," and I don't subscribe to the notion of absolute, objective truth). Rather, for me the key question is, does this model (or paradigm, take your pick) provide a useful lens through which we can gain a new understanding of our world? If so, the model may be useful in ways that our conventional thinking are not.