Whitepaper: The value of the organic work dimension within organisations
Updated: May 26
Turing Meta exists to offer services to companies based on the use of economic concepts derived from research carried out by the director into biological systems and ‘computational economics’. The history of much of this research is available online on www.turingmeta.org
This technical whitepaper on the value of the organic work dimensions within organisations explains the context for the wide range of offerings of consultancy and training from Turing Meta. Utilising this concept of organic work will enable your business to gain a competitive advantage. Further posts on the website www.turingmeta.org will highlight the business benefits of this modelling and also highlight the likely gaps in business organisation that analytics, and training in organic work can address in your organisation.
Read the article online below or download the PDF here:
By taking a bio-informed approach to organisations Turing Meta can highlight the many significant common aspects of businesses and organisms. One major way to do this is by the analysis of organicity. Looking at what we can learn from biology and apply to economics, it appears that within organisational economics, social science researchers may have systematically underplayed and under-researched the organicity dimension of work within organisations.
Both organisations and organisms need to grow, adapt, respond to uncertain conditions in their environment and manage risk. The organicity dimension of work turns out to be central to understanding the options available to do these things for both organisms and businesses. Therfore, by understanding the organicity of work, businesses can remain adaptive and viable to solve complex challenges and can leverage our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of how these challenges are solved by Nature in biology, to also solve our business problems.
There is a dimension of work which is 'organic'. Organic here refers not to ways for farming or producing food, but as a business term used in a variety of ways to describe kinds of work and our relationship to the work already being done around us.
One example from business is to identify organic versus inorganic (i.e. 'synthetic') ways that search results are returned to users of a search engine. If the business web page or product shows up in a search by a user without any money being spent by the business with the search engine provider, this is usually termed organic search, or natural search. This is because it is work that is ‘happening anyway’ and ‘naturally’ in this sense. But if the company has to pay for the product or web page to appear higher for certain searches, this is inorganic search or paid search. It is more artificial, in this sense.
Organic organisation growth
We also use the word organic in business to similarly distinguish between the different ways that an organisation can grow. Organic growth is growth by a pattern of benefitting from the existing business products. This is usually termed organic if it happens due to the growth of sales of its existing product lines. But a business can also grow inorganically. This refers to growth achieved by spending money to simply acquire or merge with other companies that already make other products. Whereas organic growth happens in a more naturally viable way, inorganic growth often incurs debt and investment up front to create change.
Organic foundations of economics
Although not described this way, the very foundation of economics due to Adam Smith is predicated on recognising how the market controls 'organic' change, (work which happens with no overall plan or controlling agent) and predominates as a way to generate wealth over more artificial means such as in a command economy, as the Soviet era demonstrated. Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘invisible hand’ influenced Darwin's ideas of natural selection, a ‘breeding process’ with no owner, that happens, ‘naturally’. Natural selection gives an indication of the enormous power of organic change, which tends to dwarf the potential of inorganic change.
Artist: James Robert White
Relational organicity is not the same as ‘organic’
In one obvious sense, all of biology is about ‘organic things’, by definition. This is true, of course, but in terms of the way the concept of organic is used in economics, this is not the case. One can call the way that the term organic is used in economics ‘relational organicity’. Relational organicity can be defined as work or activity as ‘organic’ not simply because it is done by a biological agent, but rather, because it takes advantage of, or leverages work that has either already happened, or is happening anyway, as it is being done by other agents.
This is the same intuitively as the idea of a ship which leverages the wind rather than runs under its own internal power source via a propellor. Therefore a ship can be said to be relationally organic to the wind if, it uses sails to move.
This (broadly) is the same sense of organic used in the economics concept of organic search results and organic growth of organisations versus inorganic change.
The effect is, that as we move to a more relationally organic way of being, we are more dependent on external agency to achieve the work we want to do.
A ship that relies on the wind must adapt the work it does, to allow for the fact that it doesn’t control the wind, which may not blow in exactly the desirable direction, or by the exactly desirable amount. This is the same with organic search results for our company website. We tend to have less control over which search terms return the company website, or how quickly the company website climbs in the organic search results.
Because the features of organic work are different, they tend to need to be managed differently to inorganic work where we have more control over the work.
This insight is central to how we utilise relationally organic work in an organisation.
Note how the term relational organicity is to be used: One must be aware of the relationship that the work is ‘organic to’, such as: The sail ship relates organically to the wind.
The risks of relationally organic work, such as relying on warm dry weather to stay warm and dry, means lots of relationally inorganic work is motivated by trying to remove dependencies on unreliable external forces, like the weather, i.e. swapping relationally organic for relationally inorganic work. An example is the case of deciding on a project to shelter from the weather by investing in building one. But in the case of power supplies and the challenge of climate change, we are now moving from relationally inorganic power in the sense of coal and oil powered stations whose location and supply of power is more fully controlled, to relationally organic power, in the form of solar and wind power, that are limited by the unpredictable location of the power and the changeable weather.
Leveraging information on relational organicity in biology
This concept of relational organicity can then be used to look at biological systems and distinguish between relationally organic ways of biological life, versus relationally inorganic ways of biological life with respect to certain relationships. This perspective is how one can start to leverage the vast amounts of academic information biologists now have about the natural world and how challenges of adaptation and risk, etc, are tackled by Nature and apply these insights to business. Different ways of life depend on different mixes of organic and inorganic relationships.
An example of this is the concept of parasitism. Parasitic organisms such as mosquitos rely on some part of their lifecycle on the resources from other organisms. Over 40% of animal species may be parasitic. We can choose to define parasitism as an example of more relationally organic work in biology relative to other species, just as some ships use sails to power themselves rather than only using an internal power source some species (parasites) are utilising work done anyway or already by other organisms as part of their lifecycle.
Similarly, biologists when looking at how genes are selected via the process of natural selection highlight instances where genes with prior uses are used and adapted from their prior use to a different use. This is called exaptation. Again, the work by such genetic modifications via natural selection can be termed relationally organic relative to work done by other genes, because it consists of leveraging work already done in the genome but originally fitted for another purpose or environmental niche. This is the same as the sail ship example, because the wind isn’t designed to power ships, but can be adapted to do so. Such leveraging of existing work can be powerful, simply because one doesn’t need the resources to create something from scratch.
This is in contrast to genes that create de novo function or genes that are merely the result of honing, in the long term, a specific adaptive niche, which we could choose to define as more relationally inorganic work by natural selection relative to other genes, in the sense that prior work from elsewhere in the genome is not being utilised. Such work by natural selection to hone a gene to perform a given function could take many hundreds or thousands of generations. It is relationally inorganic in the sense that the gene is evolving ‘under its own power’ of natural selection to that niche. It must therefore take a long time. But when we choose to describe something as more or less relationally organic, we often just need to be careful about the frame of reference (the relationship) we refer to as being organic or inorganic: From another perspective, natural selection is relationally organic compared to breeding animals by humans, it is something that happens anyway, by leveraging work done by mutations and the interaction with the environment.
Artist: James Robert White
Another highly relevant example to business, which is only understood relatively recently, is horizontal gene transfer. This is where genes travel from one species to another by various processes analogous to businesses using ideas and work from other domains. In biology, such work can be termed relationally organic relative to genes of other species, as it leverages work in one species by using work done by natural selection on other genes from other species. Again, like the boat that is powered by the wind via sails, horizontal gene transfer enables work to be leveraged very efficiently, and also faster than a de novo evolutionary process would usually take to adapt to some niche.
Recognising relational organicity’s close relationship to complexity
Within any complex system, within every dimension, the ecosystem, internally, etc. there is what complexity scientists call path dependence: To be viable and to adapt, a system, going forward, has to adapt and integrate and modify prior work already done or which is already happening and leverage it for new environments and purposes. Systems that exhibit path dependence are studied by complexity scientists and contrast with systems that can be studied without reference to their history. This leads to a key observation about organic work:
The fraction of the total potential value of work which is relationally organic work has to get larger as a system matures in complexity, as there is more and more prior work to take advantage of.
As an environment and ecosystem gets more populated with organisms, similar to how a market matures, the opportunity to leverage work already going on by other organisms elsewhere in the ecosystem also increases, as a fraction of the total amount of useful work that can be done.
An example of the first case is that of exaptation as a form of evolution of genes.
Two examples of the second case are that of parasitism by species of other species in an ecosystem and the process of horizontal gene transfer.
And this principle of maturing systems and ecosystems increasing the potential for relationally organic work goes for every scale of biological process, from genes, to genomes, to multicellular organisms, to ecosystems. In business, it contrasts the situation at a new company in a new market versus a mature company in a mature market. Since the term relational organicity itself is my adaptation from the use of the term organic used in economics already, we can take the same observations above and apply them directly to organisations:
Firstly, as an organisation matures, the fraction of potentially useful work which leverages prior work, increases.
Secondly, as a market matures, the fraction of potentially useful work which leverages work already being done by other businesses, increases.
Thirdly, as an organisation grows in size and complexity, the fraction of potentially useful work which leverages work already done in other parts of the organisation, increases.
Understanding how the maturing organisation needs to leverage more existing and prior work, just as happens in natural systems to continue to adapt effectively, helps us to understand where the potential solution to business challenges lie as they mature, which is in the organic dimension of work. We can think of future work 'parasitising' prior work of the organisation.
So let’s consider the mix of work in business organisations in terms of relationally organic work which leverages other work in the organisation, prior work and work done within the ecosystem, versus the fraction of greenfield, de novo projects which is relationally inorganic work:
In different dimensions work can be both organic in some dimensions and inorganic in others. For instance, a technology project can be greenfield for a company, but also be relationally organic in some dimensions, as it also leverages existing technology from another company rather than creating de novo, proprietary technology.
This mix can be made precise and turned into metrics or knowledge graphs that demonstrate the links between prior and current work. The more dependencies in the knolwledge graph, the more organic the current work is.
So complex work is almost always on an organicity spectrum and we can break it up into the de novo components and the prior and existing work components, and in relation to other agents and entities whose work is related to, organically. We can be precise and measure this. However, we are likely to find a similar optimal mix of relationally organic and inorganic work changing as any organisation or market ecosystem matures. the optimal mix will move over time in favour of relationally organic work, just as it does in biology.
For business this means that as the company matures and the market matures a key skill is the ability to leverage organic work. However, managing organic work is fundamentally different to manging inorganic work.
As an example:
1. A new greenfield, synthetic project gathers requirements which are agreed and then work begins according to a plan and budget. This is managed with the expectation of control over the resources and work.
2. A new piece of work proceeds organically by leveraging or borrowing 'parasitically' spare time and prior work alrady done elsewhere. It proceeds without complete control over the work in pockets of time between other projects and requirements that must accomodate the use of prior work done for different reasons and without a clear schedule.
There are advantages to both relationally organic and relationally inorganic work
Relationally inorganic work has the advantage of being 'novel' or 'greenfield' work with little relation to (e.g. and without the drawbacks of) prior work or other work that is happening. E.g. it can, for example use the latest technology more readily, can potentially address the novel context more exactly. Further, such work is more controllable like a coal power station versus a wind farm. But, as a business matures relationally organic work has the potential to access a larger and larger pool of resources and information (also like a wind farm), albeit, at a cost, which we can call the exaptation or access cost.
Access Cost & management of organic work
Part of the ‘access cost’ is directly analogous to a ship which uses the wind for power. The access cost is to build sails. Or for leveraging prior work we must also then adapt how the project is managed. The same is true of managing a largely renewable energy power grid versus a fossil fuel grid. The challenges for managers are different because the mix between directly controlled and partially controlled work is different. This is where training and expertise in organic work management becomes crucial to leverage the organic work potential.
Experience shows that management within organisations often tends to be biased towards highlighting and tracking more inorganic work such as large greenfield technology projects where control levels are, (or are supposed to be), very high. As a result, managers might potentially be ignorant of an increasing large fraction of potentially useful work that can be done in the organisation. This assumption is true if organisations mature like biological ecosystems, as this figure only increases over time. Therefore, the danger with this bias towards a preference for inorganic work management focused on greenfield projects, is that relationally organic work is under-utilised and is not explicilty managed or made visible to management. Then organic work, and the large fraction of the potential of the more mature and complex organisation goes unmet, like wind without a wind farm. To make visible organic work and its potential in an organisation requires metrics specific to this type of work and aligned to business objectives.
Artist: James Robert White
Complex de novo work is also organic
Even de novo work, if complex, can require an organic approach. This is because that complexity is just a way to say that it leverages existing work and processes over which we have less direct or complete control. Complex de novo work then becomes more like sailing a sail ship than a ship with a propellor, as any project manager of a large technology project will testify. Examples of such organic complexity of de novo work are any projects which leverage existing or new, complex technologies and also manage prior business requirements, infrastructure and challenges. Such work is often managed as if it is mainly synthetic even though it is mainly relationally organic, and this results in failed projects. I have written about such work and a more promising (organic) approach in the post ‘How to Make Fewer Big Decisions and with the Right Information’
Part II of this whitepaper on organic work within organisations will contain a number of things managers can do to embark on a journey to leverage the relationally organic work potential of their organisation and to leverage and manage organic work. Some of these methods can be referred to as option farming because they deal with the effects of leveraging work by others, which then means that work is of uncertain and changing value over which we have incomplete and indirect control.
The next post will also describe the many other things managers can do to begin their journey to engage with the organic work potential of their organisation, apart from option farming, to unlock the huge potential of their organisation to leverage relationally organic work:
Creating metrics to track and manage the mix of organic and inorganic dimensions to work and align them to business objectives using knowledge graphs of dependencies in work.
Recognising the important dimension of decision-making, which is to identify the appropriate organicity relationships best suited to a given problem.
Foregrounding the organic dimension to work to help to avoid common issues with using organic work in a more uncontrolled way.
Recognising the different skillset of colleagues for accessing relationally organic work and how to utilise the prior work experience of your colleagues and co-workers.
Becoming aware of organic alternatives to specific kinds of synthetic work.
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