Organizations, organisms, super organisms

Being interested in the functioning of organizations as complex systems, from time to time I like to get into the debate about how much organizations are like organisms. Some people have gone so far as to say that organizations *are* organisms, while other people take the approach that there are useful analogies to be made between the two, but that’s as far as it goes. I can certainly say that in my own work I find drawing analogies between the two to be extremely useful, but I’ve always been reluctant to go farther than that- there’s no doubt that organizations and organisms are both complex systems, but I’m not sure if one is really a type of the other.


Having said that, I’m currently reading “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of  Insect Societies” by Bert Hölldobler and  Edward O. Wilson and I find that I’m quite intrigued by the notion of super organisms and how this concept might be related to human organizations. I was familiar with the concept prior to reading the book, but Hölldobler and Wilson give some excellent detailed examples of the inner workings of a super organism that make the concept much more tangible and concrete. Coming out of the more specific data they present, I can see many interesting similarities between human organizations and social insect super organisms, particularly with respect to the communication systems present in both, so I think I’ll be investigating these similarities a bit more rigorously in the future.

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About Jennifer Schellinck

Jen Schellinck is the Director of Modelling Methodology at Cogniva and an Adjunct Professor with the Carleton Institute of Cognitive Science. Her research focuses on the way that the information flow through complex cognitive systems influences their behaviour. From a methodology perspective, she prefers to use a combination of computer modelling and experimental research to generate and then test theories. She is also interested in the application of these results to information management and organizational design. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the fields of both information science and cognitive science, outside of her specific research interest she is concerned with developing strategies for research across scientific disciplines and questions of scientific methodology more generally. At CISRI she is involved with the ‘Information flow within organizations’ research streams.

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