Corporation as an Organism

Corporations are people, my friend.

The infamous comment flared a lengthy discussion about corporations and the state during recent US presidential elections. The discourse on political role of corporations within democracies is will not be included within this blog entry, but viewing a business entity through the lens of biology certainly merits some elaboration.

This post was initially intended to reflect about the role of management in companies, which comes with higher pay grade and status alongside the perception of arrogance and (technical) incompetence. The entire Dilbert catalogue was based on the perception of management impracticality if not outright ineptitude. Joel Spolsky argued that the management’s task in software companies should be to play an administrative role: creating optimal environment to work and letting the programmers steer the company. Github and others tried to do away with hierarchical management altogether. Dilbert’s ridicule comes from disdain towards management class, while Spolsky and flat organizations tries to move away from the traditional hierarchy-based control – but these did not highlight why management – as a specialized class – is necessary.

Neurons inside the brain

The management as a whole, in terms of biology, is an analogue of the nervous system. Humans and starfishes have different nervous systems but their functions remain the same: to detect signals from the environment and coordinate various body parts. The more complicated the organism is, the more sophisticated their nervous system, and the more resource intensive it will be. Human brains devour about 20% of total energy consumption, the largest of any human organ. These expensive nervous system helps humans to become the most invasive species on earth, thriving in nearly every type of ecosystem and even modifying the environment for their own benefit.

The brain as a collective of nervous cells holds consciousness beyond simple sensor and control center. They have their own ideas about survival and prosperity as an organism. In survival mode, instinct dictates the fight-or-flight response against other organisms or environmental factors. In prosperity mode, the mind works to create tools and manipulate nature to a such extent that now physical prowess no longer holds importance as it had in the hunter-and-gatherer era. The brain had effectively reduced reliance towards motoric activity for survival, in dystopian scenarios resulting in muscle atrophy and blood circulation problems. Modern companies tend to emphasize the importance of management and reward them dearly. This does increase the companies’ survival odds to a certain extent, but also opens future vulnerabilities that well-balanced companies will be better equipped to handle.

This leads us to the original question of this entry: does management have to be done by specialized people whose job is mainly to meet each other, make decisions and dispatch command to others? In short, no, it doesn’t have to. But highly specialized personnel will be more efficient in performing these tasks, the way dairy farmers milk the cows so you won’t have to. Without specialized managers, decision making through consensus will be exponentially more difficult. The Swedish military joke (starting at 0:55) highlights this to a caricatural level. Managerial skillset also tend to have little overlap with technical skills, the same way nerve cells should deliver electric signals but muscle cells do not. This is not to say that managers can only be born – certain personalities do naturally gravitate towards the chain of command, but some others can be trained to perform the role reasonably well. The corporate world today appreciates highly specialized personnel more than the jack-of-all-trade personnel, and this applies to management as well.

Specialization, in a sense, is a byproduct of growth within organisms. In the animal kingdom, life began as a monocellular zygote, which will then multiply into multicellular embryo that consisted of stem cells. These stem cells will then multiply further while differentiating themselves as they grow in size and age: an adult organism has much fewer stem cells that act as its replenishment system. The founder of the company is a zygote: it has the DNA of the whole organism and charts its growth: whether it will become a starfish or a sponge (or the Kraken, for that matter). In its early stage, it needs generalist personnels who can do a lot of different things at the same time, minimizing resources needed while fighting for survival in an unfriendly environment. If it manages to survive and grow, the company will recruit more specialized labor, each specialized department forming a constellation of organs that becomes the corporation.

Returning to the opening aphorism, a corporation is probably more akin to an organism than a person. Each business entity inherited a cultural DNA from its founder and influenced by its environment, continuously evolving for its survival. Some end up as a starfish living under the sea, others became mice and lions on dry land, each with a differing level of sentience and reason. Maybe only a small number of companies have enough of each to be justifiably personified. But then again, thanks to our anthropomorphizing tendencies, we are prone to imagining abstract collectives as an individual anyway.

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