Are organisations alive?

09 December

"To many an unsophisticated human being, the universe of stars seems only a fancy backdrop, provided for embellishing his own and his fellow creatures’ performances. On the other hand, from the converse position, that of the universe of stars, not only all human beings but the totality of life is merely a fancy kind of rust, afflicting the surfaces of certain lukewarm minor planets. However, even when we admit our own littleness and the egotistical complexion of our interest in this rust, we remain confronted with the question: What is it that causes the rust to be so very fancy?" — H.J. Muller


Organisations are often metaphorised as living entities. In Images of Organization1, Morgan noted that “organizations, like organisms, are ‘open’ to their environment and must achieve an appropriate relation with that environment if they are to survive”.

To answer this question objectively, we need to define ‘life’.

Let’s start with a commonly used definition that arose from NASA’s exobiology working group: "life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution”2.

More recently, scientists trying to explain the emergence of life-like chemical systems have nudged this definition to read: “life is a self-propagating chemical system capable of adaptive evolution”3.

Self-propagation better describes systems that lack clear boundaries yet show collective multiplication of all members of the system, and adaptive evolution means we can include non-Darwinian forms of evolution such as genetic drift and hitchhiking4 in our definition.

What this means in simple terms is that a living system is something that:

  1. Propagates itself forward in time
  2. Gets better at self-propagation over time

Note that 1. is not by itself sufficient. Chrystals self-propagate in space over time but are not what most of us consider to be alive.

According to this definition, organisations are living things. They self-propagate over time and (at least try to) get better at it over time.

But we can not put the question to bed quite so easily. There is actually no agreed theory of life like there is a theory of gravitation or of relativity. We just have some definitions based on life as we know it. As Sara Imari Walker says, “ultimately what we need is a theory, and that our definitions should derive from the theory, not the other way around”.5

Astrobiologists like Walker, who are trying to determine how to look for signs of life in the universe, are really pushing our thinking. And what is becoming increasingly important to this thinking is the role of information.

Living entities need instructions to propagate themselves forward in time. We know that such instructions exist in DNA. We can, therefore, confidently assert that the chemistry of DNA manages information. We can also claim that information organises matter: it organises all replication and adaption, and it allows living systems to act as a whole.

Is this matter-organising informational process independent of chemistry? What life is? Some scientists certainly think so (see Learn More, below).


Why it matters

If organisations are indeed living systems then what we learn from other living things is highly relevant to designing and managing our organisations.

How life gains information from the environment to reduce uncertainty — to better survive — and how it uses that information to propagate itself forward in time could be profoundly important to organisations trying to adapt to a VUCA world.


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy



Learn more:

Sir Paul Nurse gives a tremendous lecture on What is Life?

Life ≠ alive is an excellent essay on some of the topics discussed, by Michael Lachmann and Sara Imari Walker

Sara Imari Walker’s interview on Sean Carroll’s podcast discusses information and the origin of life.

David Baum provides a good tutorial on What is the meaning of ‘life’?


Notes and references:

  1. Morgan, Gareth. (2006). Images of Organization.

  2. See Defining Life: Q&A with Scientist Gerald Joyce for discussion on the evolution of this definition.

  3. Baum, David A, and Kalin Vetsigian. “An Experimental Framework for Generating Evolvable Chemical Systems in the Laboratory.” Origins of life and evolution of the biosphere : the journal of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life__ vol. 47,4 (2017): 481-497.

  4. See Theorists Debate How ‘Neutral’ Evolution Really Is for an introductory discussion on Non-Darwinian evolution

  5. Origins of Life: Astrobiology & General Theories for Life - Abstract and General Models for Life 8:16

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