Organizations, Conversations & Cybernetics:
Influencing the Natural Evolution of the CorporationThursday 21 January 1993
Antioch University Seattle
7 - 9 PM Room T203
Paul Pangaro, Speaker
The structure of today's corporations, evolving as it has from the recent past, represents a model of the world as it recently was --- but not as it is today. One explanation of the problems besieging today's corporations is that they have not responded to changes in the world of commerce. But as is so clearly exposed by the recent difficulties of GM, IBM and DEC (to name only a few), having an explanation and having a prescriptive solution are worlds apart.
What were the conditions that led to the evolution of present-day organizations, such that their structure and actions once made excellent sense? How has the social and economic culture, and hence the nature of interactions between corporations and its customers, changed such that these organizations no longer serve? What tools of cybernetics may be profitably brought to bear on the pro-active design of change for the improved future of the corporation?
This presentation/discussion begins with a brief view of past conditions in which a paradigm of hierarchical control and stable purpose was sufficient to create wealth for corporations. This paradigm is shown to be a rational application of the cultural views of perhaps the last 300 years (only), where an objective view of the world and the strategy of "design by prediction" has led to a productive exploitation of technology. But cultural changes brought about by the transistor, and the vast possibilities of the many mature, modern technologies available in today's global markets, have created vast complexity and uncertainty. It is impossible operate based on predictions, and tremendous variety is demanded. This new environment preempts the sufficiency of deterministic modeling, and forces an embrace of flexibility and responsiveness. This in turn implicates the distribution of control and information in organizations. Hence the illusions of certainty and objectivity, generated by a cultural view that is passing, make obsolete the organizations that have come from them.
One approach to redesign of organizations is to look at what natural evolutions are succeeding. All of the following represent part of the solution: the displacements of human resources caused by information technology; the explosive growth of peer-based networks; the development of "smart materials" whose productivity lies in "doing more with less" and responsiveness rather than "defense in depth"; developments in the cybernetics of living systems; and the transitions of predominant cultural metaphor from machine to computer to living system.
Using the tools of cybernetics and the metaphor of conversations (encompassing notions of language, peer-based decision-making and shared understanding), discussion will center on a real-world example of pro-active redesign now being applied by a department within Du Pont.
Paul Pangaro received a BSci in Humanities from MIT, where he also worked in the research laboratories of Jerry Lettvin and Nicholas Negroponte. He traveled to England to earn his PhD from Brunel University in Cybernetics under Gordon Pask. In 1981 he started a private company for the sole purpose of applying second-order cybernetics to real-world problems, and has been engaged in contracts with the British Admiralty, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, NYNEX and Du Pont. Projects have included large-scale training environments for submarine commanders and nuclear power plant operators; anthropological studies of future applications of communications technology; and the epistemological, sociological and technological problems of the modern corporation. He is currently developing independent projects in the relationship of technology to cost containment and individualized health care, and personalized environmental sensing.
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