The Conceptual Organization – In and Of Society


“When I talk to audiences about the size and age of the cosmos, people often say “it makes me feel so insignificant, I answer,” the bigger and more impersonal the universe is, the more meaningful you are, because in this vast, impersonal place needs something significant to fill it up.” We’ve abandoned the old belief that humanity is at the physical center of the universe but must come back to believing we are at the centre of meaning.”

Alan Dressler, astronomer


In and of society. To me an individual of business is also of the community and society just as an individual in business is also in the community and society. An individual fulfilled at work is more likely to offer something fulfilling to the community and society. Order begets order and just begets justness and good begets good. By shaping a fairer, more creative and more productive business one begets a fairer, more creative and more productive society.

“Business is, and should be considered, truly a social agency.”

Mary Parker Follett

A business person should think of their work as one of the necessary functions of society, aware that other people are also performing necessary functions, and that all together these make a sound, healthy, useful community and society.

I would argue it not only makes business more interesting, but a job more interesting if one acknowledges it contributes to the culture of the world it interacts with.

A business should think of their work, and their business, as one of the necessary functions of society, aware that other businesses are also performing necessary functions, and that all together they make a sound, healthy, useful community and society.

An emergent conceptual organizational model, to meet the needs of what I call the Conceptual Age of business, almost demands being in, and of, society. It demands the convergence, and connection, between individual meaning, business vision, community health and engagement with the greater society (world).

If a business does not, they will act upon emergent opportunities solely in a self-interest way, in other words, they become a mercenary. I’d remind everyone there are no old mercenaries relaxing with grandchildren telling stories how they made the world better.

That said. Ultimately, an emergent conceptual organization is dependent upon maximizing human potential which also is a reflection, and recognition, that work, what one does to earn a living, is inextricably linked to being in, and of, society — structured in a better way to get the best out of people & resources as well as be a better citizen within the society in which it exists.

“A person is a point in the social process rather than a unit in that process. A person is at the same time a social factor and a social product.”

Mary Parker Follett

My issue with most ‘human-centric’ business discussions resides in the fact they appear to center on productivity within the 4-wall-construct of a business and not see themselves as any version of a producer of a social product. The truth is productivity is actually contingent upon people within, and with out, the constructs of the physical building. Humans have a symbiotic relationship between the business, society, community and, yes, the environment. It was first Follett who pointed this out and Drucker put a sharper point on that thought by pointing out a business cannot be successful within a sick society.


People, at least in a business, need to be productive, but to find meaning that productivity needs to meet two main objectives:

      • It should tap into one’s potential (unleashing potential rather than extracting skill)

      • It should offer a benefit to someone other than the person doing it.

This isn’t about Purpose or some grand vision. This is simpler. This is a simple decision to believe that a business is part of the weave of society, community and the world and that everything the business, and its people, do matters not only to the business but everything & everyone it touches. That running a profitable business is not mutually exclusive from running an equitable business – equitable to people.

This is more about shared vision than it is any purpose, cause or social responsibility (shared vision diagram). Far too many businesses are under the illusion that their organization is aligned around not only ‘values’ but some shared objective. Typically, that shared objective is some tangible measured goal and, like a machine (or well trained team), the organization is striving to attain it. That is not vision, that is a warped leadership version of gamification. It is an attempt to even out uneven people. Instead a business should share a vision, embrace progress and connect all activity with behavior people can be proud of within their home, within their community as well as within their business.

If society, and business, is truly at a crossroads, or a liminal moment in time, what does the future business model look like? How does a successful business act, and conduct itself, to thrive in the future? Those are ‘big’ questions with no clear answers, yet, I have offered an emergent business model wherein everyone can prosper, show progress and optimize their potential which maps out a clear path for a business wanting to go on a quest for a better business and a better world.

Let me remind everyone of The Malthusian Trap: humans reproduce geometrically and resources reproduce arithmetically. Technology, robots, infrastructure/capital are resources, humans are not. Period.

The business model of the future, of course, will incorporate all aspects of technology, but if a business wants multiplicative results, they should be using technology to augment humans, not replace them.

I am not proposing HOW to do this change, but rather maybe what to aim for. How to do it can be debated by smarter minds than I, in fact, Frank Thun outlined the dilemma quite simply in this piece on adopting self management’.

“Theory is good; but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.”

Jean-Martin Charcot

Theory is good, but the future of the corporation demands some actions now. organizations will need to encourage individuality and individual freedom in the business decision making because it will also encourage individuals grounded in a vision based on character, virtue & organizational integrity. That, by the way, creates business resilience to ward off Creative Destruction.

note: I set aside Culture as a topic for now because I tend to believe if an organization embraces the most potential uncovering process, systems and principles a great culture will emerge (and as long as you maintain the process, systems and principles the culture will propagate itself).  I do believe ‘culture’ is possibly valuable infrastructure elements of a business for value creation. That said, of course, there is a synergy between algorithms, data, processes, systems and humans that make up culture (its lazy to simply say culture is people).

I am not a ‘purpose driven business’ fan mostly because I believe purpose is found in an outcome & doing, not based on an objective. I’m extremely cynical about organizational purpose because far too often some nebulous Purpose is used to justify less-than-dignified, non-collaborative, behavior in the pursuit of it. In other words, Purpose, in and of itself, is not moral or principled, simply another objective. I believe if a business embraces mobility, autonomy, objectivity & velocity within a framework in which the business itself is of, and within, society I imagine they will achieve some purpose without even having a specific purpose in mind. In fact. I imagine if a business strives toward being a Conceptual Age organization, they will find that the greater purpose narrative is met – the purpose of business is to benefit people. In other words, usefulness is a Halo Effect (if you succeed at being useful you not only generate $ but also enhance meaning).

An organization, no matter how far down any “digital transformation” (or any technology transformation vector) is, at the end of the day, no more or no less than people serving people. Technology may enable this service in some form or fashion but, as I have said too many times to count, technology is nothing without people using it. Technology can enhance the Conceptual Age organization, it can enable a Conceptual Age organization, it can even augment human conceptual emergence, but, in the end, the conceptual age is about people doing things for other people.

Let me end with where I began – Toffler.

I will not debate at this time, in this place, and in the foreseeable future, there are not distinct issues and distinct questions to answer. But just as Toffler stated in 1965, 55 years ago, any society which is progressing will always be in this situation – it is simply a matter of degrees. I fear in positioning what is happening today as a unique situation it will not only mislead people (which creates attitudinal issues) but most likely creates some misguided thinking.  By treating this as unique we increase the likelihood that everything needs to be thrown out and everything becomes a zero-based plan. And some things may deserve that type of scenario thinking – but not everything. For example. I dislike the concept of ‘reskill’ for a number of reasons but let me highlight 2:

  • It is demeaning to people who have invested years of training & experience who sees value in what they know & do that they need to be ‘reskilled’, in combination with,
  • I would bet if you asked 100 workers you are viewing as needing ‘reskilling’, 99 of them will respond “you don’t even use let alone maximize all the skills I have now.”

The business world has underutilized individual potential for decades. In fact. I would suggest the waste of human potential is immense. It seems like now would be a good time to not change people (and their skills), but rather maximize people and their potential. I think it’s absurd to suggest coal miners become coders. But you know what? They can certainly redirect their skills to building infrastructure and redirect their extraction skills to assist in injecting things back into the environment (renovate parks, environmental improvements, etc.). This, in my words, is substantive productivity – productivity which offers meaning to the individual, the business and the society.

Substantive productivitypurpose & doing is more important than intangibles and is where Management, who typically views productivity as efficiency not effectiveness (& people as efficiency parts) or “stripped productivity”, redirects its focus on being in and of society.

This creates a version of organizational morality <or value beyond profit> and it becomes a leadership cornerstone within an organization.

In the end.

I am suggesting a better business creates a better society. People spend a significant part of their lives working and that work establishes, as an adult, how they view how the ‘game of life is played.’ When business is dysfunctional or misaligned from ‘better’ values/ethics/behavior (playing fair, how you treat others, rewarded for good work, appreciated for potential not task achievement, progress over results, etc.) it creates a discord in how one views how community/society SHOULD behave. It creates a sensemaking (what makes sense in the world) dissonance and destroys the commonalities (a word Daniel Schmachtenberger uses) which offer some agreed upon beliefs and behaviors. When sensemaking falls part or becomes blurry choice making often steps on the slippery slope of moral compromise. I bring all of this up because business, like it or not, is often not only the model for how things work but the glue to societal attitudes.

I am suggesting business should assume its responsibility to society.

I am not suggesting removing the human element, in fact, this business model elevates people BY using data & technology to augment the people enhancing curiosity, collaboration and empathy.

This new business model success is dependent upon some degree, if not total, distributed decision-making (which can be collaborative as well as driving knowledge to teams working together) more so than simply a structure in which humans working together is enhanced. Some of what I am suggesting suggests that digital transformation is a simplistic misguided concept in that it suggests building an infrastructure then making people use it (maximizing the digital construct) rather than what should be done – morph a digital construct around people to augment and enhance their imaginative/productivity potential (maximizing people) to the benefit of the business AND society.

I am suggesting business assume its responsibility to people, all people, not just its customers or employees.

I will end where I began. Many of these issues have always been in existence they just come to life in different forms and rather than suggest it is ‘disruption’ we view it as ‘healthy progress’ – “on and of society” is no different.

A new generation of thinkers will have to decide what they will do with all the thoughts Follett, Goldratt, McLuhan, Drucker and Toffler offered us decades ago. Technology will play a significant role, but it will end up being impossible to turn our back on people working together because, inevitably, it will be people, and people working together, which will redefine society and business.

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Written by Bruce