Is social a kind of homeostasis for people ?

Summary : the challenge any businesse face is to find an efficient way to work while keeping it’s balance in a fast moving environment. I implies adaptability from the smallest part of the system, people, but also regulation mechanisms that will drive the behaviors of all its components toward a coherent collective action. Making people change without changing the regulation mechanisms can, on the contrary, lead to a result that can be even worth that the situation that had to be fixed.

I was recently trying to take a little distance and find a way to define the social/2.0 paradigm. It was intented to make it understandable by normally educated people who are clueless about technology in order they could understand the big picture without needing too many details. Something nearly anybdody should have heard of at high-school.

Finally the first thing that seemed obvious to me was homeostasis. That’s the capability of any system (open or closed) to keep its functional balance despite of external constraints. That looks quite similar sine what we’re talking about is the organizational capability to function efficiently in a fast moving context, the whole with an idea of balance, both internal and external, that has to be preserved. I even found this quote from Walter Bradford Cannon  : “Homeostasis is a dynamique balance that keeps us alive“. That’s exactly what social is meant to be for businesses : a means to keep one’s balance while being countinuoulsy adapting.

So the picture is nice and meaningful. It will help anyone to shine at diners parties but in the end that’s nothing more than poetry. But if we push the logic further we may have things to learn.

As a matter of fact, let’s ask the question “how does it work”, keeping in mind that what we’re looking for is lessons for businesses. Since social organizations are often refered to as organic organizations, the idea sounds pretty good.

At first sight it works because all the elements of the system adapt. Right but quite hasty. They don’t adapt by themselves but according to a regulation system that, in some ways, constraints them. An adaptable and balanced system does not work because its elements adapt but because the system itself adapts and leads its component towards new behaviors.

That’s something Deming highlighted decades ago : systemic factors are responsible for more organization problems and thus have can lead to more improvement than individual performances.

First lesson at the corporate level : it’s more important to fix the system than exhort people to uncoordinated individual change relying on the willingness of each one. One’s ability to change, that is about both skills and behaviors, has no value a a system that does not allow, organize and facilitate the use of the skills and the expression of these behaviors. From another standpoint, people won’t change the system with new attitudes. They can violate it, break it if they reach a critical mass but the result won’t be an adaptable (or ideally adaptive) but a chaos than could be even worse that the original situation.

Besides that, businesses are not a unique system made of small components (people). It’s made of many departments, divisions, within which are teams, within which are people. So that’s a three levels challenge, each level having to adapt to both what contains it and to what it contains. That’s the big difference between businesses and our original biology-oriented focus. In biology the system adapts to its environment, what’s partly the case for businesses. But businesses also need to adapt to their components because initiatives can be initiated by employees in front of a client (external factor) and the team then the department then the business has to align and follow.

So it’s all about behaviors at skills at an individual level, management at a local level, the way decisions are made, people learn, exchange, things are measured etc. that’s to say regulation at a global level. The success of one level depending of what’s done at the superior level and the ability of le lower level to execute.

So, is homeostasis for human groups a dream or something realistic ? Surely something possible provided we don’t mislead ourselves and make the smallest parts of the system carry the weight of the whole. What we take for natural is the result of millions years of evolution of our “DNA software”. To reach similar results, we’ll have to hack and reprogram the “enterprise OS” and not only ask components to break the rules. Moreover when cells break rules regardless to a desired evolution, against the system, that as a name : cancer.

Think about it.