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The Body Corporate

February 23, 2009

I have a few posts in mind which will attempt to use what we know of the human body as an analogy to help us make sense of the social body we call the organisation.

Analogies, like metaphors, example stories and even taxonomies, can be useful sensemaking devices insofar as they reflect broadly similar situations and sets of relationships, and help us transition back and forth between the known and the unknown. They help to the extent that they provide ready-made patterns or frameworks or mental models that can help us visualize or understand or extrapolate things about a novel situation that may not be immediately obvious to us.

The approach has some risks, because we are often more familiar with the simulacrum or model we are using for the analogy and less familiar with the target context we are trying to make sense of, and small interpretive successes can tempt us to take our analogies further than they are warranted. We don’t always know the target well enough to test the validity of the conclusions we draw.

This is especially true of what I’m interested in: parallels between the science of the body which is relatively well-developed, and the science of the organisation which is medieval at best. Scientific insight may look like a much better substitute for the credulous hypotheses about organisational life that we fumble around with, but only if the parallel works – so one of the questions I want to ask over the next few posts is: does a parallel with the human body give us potentially useful lines of enquiry for understanding organisations better?

However there are good precedents for at least making an attempt on this analogy and some guiding markers about where the analogy breaks down, quite apart from opening up the analogy to critical scrutiny.

•Political theorists have long used the analogy of the human body for the body politic
•Evolutionary biology tells us even the human body is comprised of coalitions of self-interested “germs” that in a distant past “decided” they were better off as specialised cells cooperating with clusters of other specialised cells
•Psychologists have discovered that even our consciousness is not as cohesive or as singular as we like to think

We know there are limits to this analogy, though I’d like to press those perceived limits a bit and test them. For example, birth and death are generally far less dramatic for organisations than for human bodies. Or are they? A singular, free will can direct a human body in unpredictable ways that are not generally reflected in organisational life – or are they? An organisation is a much looser coalition of dispersable and interchangeable free agents compared to a body where the coalition is tightly geared and directed – or is it?

The questions I have in mind to explore over the next couple of weeks are:
•To what extent can our skin teach us about memory and destiny in organisations?
•Is there such a thing as mental health or sanity in organisations?
•Does the idea of metabolism help us understand organisational life and especially change readiness?
•Is the idea of the power of mind over body stronger in organisations than in individuals?
•Do organisations have irreversible biographies the way that human bodies do, or are they genuinely capable of rebirth?

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