10 November 2014

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization

One question that periodically surfaces among my leader-clients is, “how did we ever get into the leadership mess we’re in these days?” What often passes for leadership is often bull-headedness, the ability to drive to accomplish a goal with almost obsessive determination, and the overarching drive to win at any and all costs. The C-suite seems to be overrun with dark-triad personalities. Organizations tend to create elaborate shields of willful ignorance so long as the leader in question – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the hierarchically most senior person – continues to bring in the results.

In other words, how did we get to here?

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization takes a stab at answering that very question. It begins with a foundational premise of human interactions: the dominant way in which we communicate with each other as a society enables the structuring institutions of that society. It is an argument that implicates technologies throughout Western history, but is not technological determinism, the doctrine that says technological advances drive everything with an unwavering inevitability. Rather, drawing from the arguments of people like Eric Havelock, Harold Adam Innis, and Marshall McLuhan, I would suggest that throughout history, communication technology enables environments that tend to favour structuring institutions of society most consistent with the way in which people interact with each other. That is, “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Which brings us to the history of those great, structuring institutions, organizations. The paper traces the way Athenian democracy organized itself in a remarkable contemporary way, promoting inclusiveness, participation, knowledge sharing, and prevention of concentrated power in the hands of a few, privileged men. As communication technology changed, so too did the organizational institution: bureaucratic power emerged very much concentrated in the hands of a few, very privileged men at the top of the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th and 12th centuries. The manuscript culture that drove the Church gave way to a culture driven by mechanized print that enabled the Enlightenment, early modernity, and paved the path to Industrial Age organizations and management. This, of course, gave us the industrial and mechanistic 20th century and the foundations of modern management.

In the paper, I argue that the 20th-century organizational story takes two, parallel paths, one that creates the managerialist worldview, another that provides a more humanistic approach. If 20th-century management (and most MBA education) served the purposes of the former approach, the latter is emerging as better serving the complex challenges of relationship-oriented organizations in the 21st century. Finally, I introduce Valence Theory as a foundational, contemporary theory of organization that both accounts for the past 3,000 years (including the 20th century), and explains the complex, emergent, and downright weird organization forms and dynamics that we have seen more recently.

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization. Download the paper here.

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