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Friday, April 9, 2010

The Wisdom of the Body

Art Kleiner argues that the organization is alive (Strategy+Business, April 2010) and refers to a book published in 1997 called The Wisdom of the Body, by Sherwin B. Nuland.

So that set me thinking about the intelligence of the body. The body has a series of highly sophisticated mechanisms for maintaining stability, and is in a sense "programmed" for survival and reproduction.  But some of these mechanisms can produce undesirable outcomes (such as obesity and diabetes), and people are commonly driven by urges and appetites that seem primitive in comparison to the demands of the modern world. Our ancestors lived in a world where salt, sugar and fat were scarce; many people nowadays overindulge on these ingredients, and don't find it at all easy to exercise control over their diet. So there is a sense in which the body may be more powerful than the conscious mind, and able to achieve a certain range of outcomes in the face of a certain range of environmental conditions, but I don't know I'd want to call this intelligence let alone wisdom.

How does the body adapt to changing environment? Apparently thanks to a device known as the brain, which sometimes produces clever ways of dealing with an inhospitable environment - for example fire and animal skins and shelter to protect against the cold. So we are led to imagine that the intelligence of the body is largely located in the brain (this is perhaps already a misleading simplification).

And when we think of the body as a metaphor for an organization, it is tempting to think of the cognitive and communication and learning devices within an organization as being analogous to those in the body, and that the intelligence of the organization is largely located in its senior management, who serve as the "brain of the firm".

There are several coordination mechanisms in the human body - nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system - and Kleiner suggests loose parallels between these mechanisms and the different communication systems within an organizations. He points out that an organization has several communication systems that perform different purposes - including command and control, knowledge sharing, sharing cultural values - and argues that these are distinct systems, "each requiring its own form of intervention to effect change".

There is an important difference between the human body and the organization, however. In the human body, the cardiovascular system and endocrine system can be trained to a limited extent, but most of the scope for innovation and problem-solving resides in the brain. In the organization, on the other hand, the intelligence is not limited to the command and control system, and there may indeed be more scope for innovation and problem-solving through multiple communication systems.

In which case, a healthy organization may have forms of wisdom greater than the wisdom of the human body. But what is required for a healthy organization?

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