In his book “General System Theory”, the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy describes three processes which play an important role in biology. They are progressive mechanization, progressive centralization, and progressive individualization.
Bertalanffy uses the example of an embryo to describe progressive mechanization. At a very early stage in its life, all cells play the same role. The embryo is merely a collection of identical cells bound together. However, as its development continues the cells begin to exhibit differences and take on specialised roles according to their location. As the embryo’s development continues, the cells then assemble into different organs.
Progressive centralization often goes hand in hand with progressive mechanization. The various component parts of an organism become subordinated under dominant parts, which serve to co-ordinate their activities. In an embryo for example, the dominant part is the nervous system, which, in turn, is subordinated to the brain.
Finally, progressive individualization describes the way in which an organism becomes more unified and individual. In the early stages of an embryo, for example, when individualization has not begun, any splitting of the collection of cells results in identical twins. However, the embryo becomes progressively more complex, and progressively more a system in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It cannot be broken down into its separate parts without losing the feature that makes it a living individual, i.e., without dying.
These three processes, which appear to be a natural feature of life, extend into organisations, i.e., groups of people with a common purpose. Organisations emulate as far as they can an individual organism. They comprise specialists, managed by a hierarchy, under the ultimate control of a leader, and have an individual identity. However, we are not telepathic and have no group mind. Thus, the leadership role must be taken on by an individual and communication is via language. Whilst the mind of an individual is capable of controlling their own body, an organisation is more complex, and we are, therefore, less able to comprehend and control it. So, a hierarchy becomes necessary.
As we ascend the hierarchy, information is simplified by subordinate leaders for those of higher status. This enables the latter to comprehend and co-ordinate the activities of the specialists under their control. The number of specialists and degree of complexity that must be managed increases as we ascend the hierarchy. So too is the amount of simplification needed. At each stage, as information is passed up the hierarchy, some of it is lost. Commands coming down must also be interpreted in more detail by leaders of lower status. So, the reverse occurs and, at each stage descending the hierarchy, information is added to any communications. Clearly, the more levels there are in a hierarchy, the greater the risk that critical information will be lost, or misinformation gained. Ultimately, to avoid mistakes becoming too frequent or too serious, it becomes necessary for decentralization to take place.
In summary, hierarchy is a natural feature of life. Leaders exist because of the need to co-ordinate specialists. They form a hierarchy because progressive simplification is needed to deal with increasing complexity, as the number of specialists under a leader’s ultimate control increases.
This natural system can, however, break down because the people who populate a hierarchy are determined by the trading of status for support and can act in their personal interest rather than that of the organisation.
Individuals and organisations are attracted to other individuals or organisations that they believe will satisfy their needs. This applies to:
- Normal human needs. Thus, people will seek employment by an organisation as a satisfier of those needs.
- Normal organisational needs. For example, a business may be attracted to a political party whose ideology supports its purpose.
- The need for inner consistency. Thus, people and organisations with a particular view will join others with the same or similar views. This enables them to hold that view, whilst at the same time satisfying the need for relatedness.
- Antisocial needs. People will join an organisation which appears to provide opportunities to satisfy these. In the case of an individual, it may, for example, be easy access to money. However, organisations can also have anti-social needs, and are attracted to parent organisations which facilitate their satisfaction, e.g., groups of mercenaries.