Dave Snowden

of Charlemagne and slime moulds

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A couple of things came together to stimulate writing this post.   One was thinking about issues of management and control within organisations and the other was the recent BBC series Germany: Memories of a nation.  One of the key messages from the BBC series was the way in which the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire informs much of what counts as being Germanic over the centuries and into the modern day.  OK it was formally dissolved in the time of Napoleon but there was continuity of identity.  The italicised phrase is an important one and I'll return to tomorrow.

The thing which interested me in that BBC history was the degree of cultural cohesion possible within a loosely coupled network of control between the various states that pre-date the first unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871   This meant that political dissidents could move between the princely states to escape persecution without having to move outside a Germanic culture.  A large part of Germany’s artistic and political success can be attributed to that history combined with the need to resolve issues arising from the two world wars in the last century.

We can make a similar argument in an organisation.  Over the last few decades ambiguity has been removed from the formal management structures and process controls in organisations.  Any uncertainty is frowned and deemed inefficient in modern organisational design.   The reality of family and tribal life, or for that matter of trading networks like the various Hansa (again well covered in the BBC programme) is that their strength comes fro the fact that they are loosely coupled but can in specific contexts become tightly coupled and change their form.  Slime moulds are used extensively as examples of high flexibility in that they change form and acquire locomotive capability during times of starvation; they can readily change both shape and function including using passing animals to provide auxiliary power.    

There are a lot of misuses of Dunbar's Number of 150 but we can work with the idea that there are natural limits to cohesive identity or relationship links  that enable effective action under conditions of uncertainty.   We also know that faced with common threat larger groups can create common purpose, or fragment; it doesn't have to be positive.   So to create a resilient organisation we need to manage a loosely coupled network of cohesive groups that can become tightly coupled when necessary for specific purpose, or specific social structures that provide coupling between cohesive entities.  That would include cross-silo crews for example a subject on which I have written before.

The same applies to individual responsibilities (a Cognitive Edge discussion provoked this post in part).  To say that someone is responsible for something is not to say that they have full knowledge or control of all activities within that area.   There needs to be an ability ti create that control when the context needs it (tight coupling) but most of the time a degree of freedom with the network may produce faults, but the benefits far outweigh them: better to live with a few betrayals of trust than give up on trust in favour of process.

I'm going to be further developing this approach to a theory of the organisation and of organisational resilience in the Cognitive Edge courses on Day three, along with related scaling issues on Day two.  That will start in London next week (a sell out course but there has been a cancellation so you might still get in) or Zurich in the new year.   More posts here as I get time over the next week.

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