There is no operating system for business

It’s not surprising that in this in this age of technological revolution, many people reach for metaphors based on the invention of the age, the computer. They talk about ‘rebooting the system’, ‘installing new software’ and ‘re-programming’ things (sometimes, rather chillingly, they mean the people). They are trying to get across complex ideas in a way that’s easy to understand with a gloss of ‘cool’.

But it’s really unhelpful. Seeing the world through the lens of tech doesn’t illuminate, it distorts.

It’s a mistake Aaron Dignan makes in his book ‘Brave New Work’, which is built around the idea of ‘creating a new Operating System’ so that businesses can become ‘Evolutionary Organisations’.

What’s wrong with that? Plenty.

Firstly, It reinforces the dominant paradigm of an organisation as a machine, which is the root cause of many of our problems today.

We don’t need to make the ‘machine’ run better. 

We need to get rid of the machine.

Secondly, it infers a ‘done to’ rather than a ‘done by’ change.

Thirdly, it’s not about people, who are at the heart of any effective change.

And it also supports the idea that change can be effected through a mechanistic approach.

This is a shame because there are many excellent ideas in the book but underlying it is this concept of ‘the business OS’ that subconsciously locks in the very ideas we need to overturn.

There’s actually a clue to this in the language that he uses. He champions the need to move to ‘Evolutionary Organisations’, an explicitly biological metaphor, whilst the means to get there is the mechanistic one of the Operating System – and by implication, the Machine.

To me, one of the most powerful message in Frederick Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ is that we need to change the paradigm for organisations to one of an organism – an entity that senses and responds, adapts and evolves, in harmony with it’s environment – and drop the current machine paradigm that is causing so many problems.

It is this conceptual switch that pushes us to embrace humanity and to bring people to the centre of our organisations. To think more in terms of ecosystems, interdependence and evolution rather than the competition, independence and exploitation that has characterised our organisations to date.

It’s hard to see the world differently. You have to “unlearn’’ what you knew before but that’s extremely difficult when reminders of what you are trying to unlearn are everywhere. Just ask yourself the following questions:

What’s the ‘operating system’ of a flower?
Can you ‘reprogramme’ a zebra?
How do you ‘reboot’ a jellyfish?

They’re ridiculous, right? But the very asking of them starts you thinking of these organism as machines and you are suddenly in the very thinking you are trying to get away from. 

There are other hidden implications in using this language.‘Installing a new operating system’ is very much a ‘done to’ action, isn’t it? I mean, computers don’t decide themselves that they need a new OS and go away and design it, do they?

Yet we are very much moving towards a world where it’s the people who decide what the organisation is going to be like and how it works. That’s what ‘self-management’ means. That’s what giving people more autonomy and ownership looks like. The future is a ‘done by’ world.

And where are the people in the ‘Operating System’? Because I’ve taken the lid of quite a number of computers and I’ve never seen anyone inside them. Just components – cheap, replaceable components. 

Organisations are about people and the relationships they have with each other. They always have been and many of the problems we face today are because that they have lost sight of that fundamental truth.

The ways in which we describe our world, the images and the words we use, are critically important. They shape our perception, our behaviours, our hopes and dreams. Let’s please stop using the language of tech and computers to describe the world we want to see. How can we create something new with the language of the past? How can we create a world where humans thrive if we describe a nirvana for machines? 

There is no operating system for business. Just the messy, gloriously unpredictability and limitless potential of humans.

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