One of the foremost signs of present-day society is the presence of massively complex systems that increasingly permeate almost every aspect of our lives. The amazement we feel in contemplating the wonders of industrial and informational technologies is tinged by a sense of uneasiness, if not outright discomfort. Though these complex systems continue to be hailed for their increasing sophistication, there is a growing recognition that they have brought with them a business and organizational environment that is almost unrecognizable from the perspective of traditional management theory and practice.
Moreover, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our complex industrial systems, both organizational and technological, are the main driving force of global environmental destruction, and thus the main threat to the long-term survival of humanity. To build a sustainable society for our children and future generations — the great challenge of our time — we need to fundamentally redesign many of our technologies and social institutions so as to bridge the wide gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature. This means that organizations need to undergo fundamental changes, both in order to adapt to the new business environment and to become ecologically sustainable.
Although we hear about many successful attempts to transform organizations, the overall track record is very poor. In recent surveys, CEOs reported again and again that their organizational change efforts did not yield the promised results. Instead of managing new organizations, they ended up managing the unwanted side effects of their efforts. At first glance, this situation seems paradoxical. When observe our natural environment, we see continuous change, adaptation, and creativity; yet our business organizations seem to be incapable of dealing with change.
In his seminars, Fritjof Capra presents an approach to organizational change that is inspired by recent scientific breakthroughs, which have led to a new understanding of living systems. He suggests that, to transform organizations, we first need to understand the natural change processes that are embedded in all living systems. Once we have that understanding, we can design processes of organizational change accordingly and create human organizations that mirror life's adaptability, diversity, and creativity.
The understanding of human organizations in terms of complex living systems is likely to lead to new insights into the nature of complexity, and thus to help us deal with the complexities of today's business environment. Moreover, it will help us design business organizations that are ecologically sustainable, since the principles of organization of ecosystems, which are the basis of sustainability, are identical to the principles of organization of all living systems.
There is an additional reason why the systemic understanding of life is of paramount importance in the management of today's business organizations. Over the last few decades we have seen the emergence of a new economy that is shaped decisively by information and communication technologies. In this new economy, the processing of information and creation of knowledge are the main sources of productivity. Thus "knowledge management," "intellectual capital," and "organizational learning" have become important new concepts in management theory. Applying the systems view of life to organizational learning enables us to clarify the conditions under which learning and knowledge creation take place and to derive important guidelines for the management of today's knowledge-oriented organizations.
In summary, the new understanding of life implies the following four lessons for the management of human organizations.