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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