Corporate DNA:
Learning From Life

Ken Baskin (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998)

Ken Baskin demonstrates in his interesting book that he is himself eminently capable of learning from life, but the real thing appears to be more important for his message than that described in the sciences of complexity. The value of this book lies in the rich array of corporate examples that is used to illuminate new management practices, while concepts from complexity serve more to contain and legitimate the author’s insights than as a source of illumination.

The concept of corporate DNA is a case in point. It is stated that: “DNA is life’s ultimate tool for creative problem solving.” The importance of information availability throughout an organization is stressed throughout the book, by analogy with the presence and accessibility of DNA in every cell of an organism. Information is certainly involved in creative innovation, but it is not the origin of relevant novelty, either in evolving organisms or in adapting businesses. Baskin knows this, and his understanding of the dynamics of organizational change sits uneasily with the limitations of the information metaphor. He has read Maturana and Varela and describes the essential creative learning process as a conversation between the component parts of a system organized in such a way as to be both open and closed: open to influences from within and without (as in genetic and environmental change), but logically closed in the sense of maintaining coherence or identity.

It is this coherent but flexible conversational dynamic, including the voice of the customer, that Baskin describes over and over in his useful examples of successful, innovative organizations such as 3M, Federal Express, and the intriguing array of cooperating software companies gathering around the World Wide Web, now mounting a challenge to Microsoft. This dynamic needs relevant information, but has distinctive characteristics in a healthy adapting organization, which complexity theorists attempt to grasp with the descriptive term “edge of chaos.”

Oddly enough, this concept is not used by Baskin in his description of adaptive organizational change. He presents instructive examples of management taking the frightening step of letting go of the illusion of control and benefiting from the creative, empowering consequences, as at Mercedes Benz Credit Corporation. As CEO Georg Bauer put it: “People were shocked that I’d put the future of the organization in their hands. Management was skeptical, too.” The need for support groups to generate confidence and trust in such circumstances are clearly described, and Baskin reports on the necessity to “examine the soft, human factors” involved.

He elaborates on such examples and makes a convincing case for the need to change from a mechanical to an organic model in corporate organization. The mechanical mode is embodied in senior executives wh see themselves as the external intelligence operating the corpora machine. They consider that they deserve special treatment such as prime parking places, executive dining rooms, stock options, and salaric in six or seven figures. This style of control thinking often consists in di membering a company and tearing it from the community where it has resided for as long as a century, in downsizing and engendering fear f redundancy in the workforce. Such executives control the formal structure to direct the informal organization.

The biological metaphor transforms this into a self-organizing system, with leadership playing the role of stewardship, maintaining the health of the whole so that the parts can perform their tasks and employees are trusted to find solutions to new problems. The job of the CEO is not control but coordination and facilitation, with peer recognition becoming more important than monetary rewards throughout the company. In describing these changes, Baskin makes use of many biological metaphors and ideas from complexity theory. However, it is probably fair to say that these metaphors and ideas do not provide any really new insights into the value of such transformation, which is now recognised simply from the performance of the companies practicing organic management. At most, the science validates the new thinking, which has independent roots.

The deeper aspects of the management revolution go well beyond any currently available model and require, I believe, a new science to be adequately described and understood. Complexity takes us to the threshold of such a science, but its inadequacies are evident in what I see as Baskin’s struggle to articulate his insights in terms of the new ideas. Organizational change goes beyond anything in complexity theory, leaving behind even the “edge of chaos” and entering a world of participatory relationships that complex dynamics points to but does not know how to negotiate. This is the territory that Baskin is exploring. It is hardly surprising that he struggles with the limited and limiting ideas of complexity theory, despite its location at the very frontier of scientific thinking. Before the science of life can illuminate human social structure in any significant way, it will have to find a way of acknowledging and articulating the importance of values in the participatory dynamic of relationships and the quality of healthy conversations.