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Organisation as Technology

In developing ideas and conversations around The Self Agency we’ve needed to reframe our perceptions of organisations; when designing for the individual agent before the organisation this reframing helps us to articulate a more coherent relationship.

To date, my favourite definition of organisations has described them as “ways of organising”; this is immediately useful as it moves us away from the notion of an organisation as an entity in itself. Organisations as verb—as ways of bringing people together for something—provides a more useful focus.

After all, when we think of an organisation as a thing, it potentially becomes a vessel, something with a clearly defined inside and outside: increasingly useless as defining elements of the mental model of organisations. But more limiting is the way in which it sets an arbitrary boundary on the role of the individual: we become creators or consumers—inside or outside—when in fact we’re always both (and much more).

The verb perspective, the organisation as way of organising, isn’t perfect either. And so it’s increasingly made more sense to consider the organisation as a technology, in other words a tool, or set of tools, of varying complexity. Wikipedia defines a technology as:

“the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives”

Not only does this suit the definition of an organisation rather well, but it leads us on to consider how the relationship between individuals and organisations can be better conceived; the organisation-as-technology metaphor provides us with a more useful way of framing the individual. It becomes an enabler.

Rather than just a way of holding diverse people together, it provides a multi-faceted system that can be optimised for individual agency. In the way that simple technologies might enable one person to achieve one task, complex technologies can enable all manner of connections to support meaningful value creation. People become far more than components.

A technology metaphor also provides an easier way to foster uniqueness. We’ve begun to see organisations as places where we can install apps or operating systems, in many ways a reinforcement of the organisation-as-vessel view. One major problem with considering organisations to be something we can install something on/in is that we lose the individuality that is part of an organisation’s reason to exist.

We’ve seen this problem surface very quickly in organisations where organisational designs like Holacracy have been “installed”: in many cases it fails to suit the unique purpose and humanity of the organisation. This may seem obvious — that we can’t run all organisations exactly the same way — but the real limitation in thinking comes when we constrain ourselves to searching for an alternative operating system. It’s not the specific operating system that’s the problem but the mental model itself.

There are obvious parallels in computer technologies. A defining technology battle of the nineties, between Macs and PCs, largely came down to a battle of operating systems, and to a limited extent processing power. Either way, the parameters of the battlefield were somewhat narrow.

The real disruption came with a new technology, not operating system: the move to smartphones. And we see similar battles raging now. Competitive advantage has been won in all sorts of industries not from improvements in the operating systems (say, hotel brands) but in radical rethinks of the technologies (like Airbnb).

But this isn’t really about competitive advantage, or disruption: redefining organisations as technologies isn’t just about providing a better outcome for the organisation. The purpose of computers is not computing; the purpose is providing a means for humans to do something of value.

And so this should be the primary reason for redefining organisations as technologies: to provide a better way of creating the means by which humans can further their individual agency and achieve better outcomes.

The organisation-as-technology idea also provides us with a way of identifying the unique value of the organisation. When organisations are only perceived as differentiated by cultural differences, or minor variability in their operating systems, then they become interchangeable and disposable.

By way of contrast, a proprietary technology is a completely different thing: it is uniquely fit for purpose.