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Scientia potentia est

July 1, 2008

A chance question in a plenary session here in Kuala Lumpur today, and a glance at the home page of the Wikipedia triggered a memory of an archaic but useful word Conatus. It means the natural tendency of a thing to maintain and enhance itself over time, a sort of precursor to the idea of autopoiesis from the work of Maurana and Varela. The latter is a popular word within some systems and complexity circles although I am less convinced of its utility in human systems, where the I think ideas of strange attractors, coherence and coalescence may have more utility.

Now I first came across the idea many years ago when I was writing an essay contrasting Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will to Live, with Nietzsche’s Will to Power. The trigger from the plenary session was the hoary old chestnut of knowledge as power which both Larry Prusak and I from different perspectives attacked. The question for any coherent entity often comes down to this; self-preservation or to (in Nietzsche’s words) to become more. For an organisation at any level, or for that matter a country it seems to me that the tendency to self-preservation while understandable is probably not desirable in an uncertain world. Of course fear of destruction of loss is a dominant factor here.

Now a networked organisation (particularly a nodal network) has a capability to become more, without destruction, through a process of dissolution and recombination. Something a more formal, structured and hierarchical organisation attempts through constant re-organisation as executives change or failure becomes self-evident. The trouble is that this change is not a complex evolutionary process but one of constant shifts between excessive order and deliberately induced and destructive chaos.

In nature silence is always opposed to stability. But for the leaders of an organisation stability can be more immediately attractive. Hence the tendency to allow the emergence of autopoietic structures in modern organisations that too often prevent real change, resting on the laurels of past success. In all the organisations I witnessed in IBM the same flotsam and jetsam always ended up on top.

Thirty three years ago I cam down on the side of Nietzsche and I think I still do, but then the will to power does not mean power in the sense of domination, it means it in the original context of Bacon’s scientia potentia est in Meditationes Sacrae namely the need for education or learning. Not the modern, crude and inaccurate translation as information hoarding. If we increase knowledge, stimulate network connectivity and prevent excessive order then resilience, fluidity and yes power, in the best sense of the world become possible.

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