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What can high school biology teach us about the ultimate future of business operations?

Where's the puck ultimately headed when it comes to intelligent business operations?


Quick, what's a sleeping brain's favorite musical group? You give up? It's REM!

True, high-school biology can teach us a few terrible jokes about the nervous system, but that's not where this article is going. At least not today. Instead, we're going to draw lessons for the operations of organizations by comparing them to the ultimate marvel of internal operations - the nervous system. Specifically, what could we learn about the ultimate end-state of a highly evolved business operations function by comparing it to a human nervous system.

Flashback to high-school biology... there are two types of nervous systems that connect to the body's central nervous system of the brain and spinal cord. One's called the Somatic Nervous System, which manages VOLUNTARY control of stuff (mostly external stuff related to control of muscles and skin, such as the movements of limbs). The other is called Autonomic Nervous System, which controls internal INVOLUNTARY stuff below the level of consciousness (e.g. breathing or digestion).

When it comes to the most evolved, futuristic model of a business, perhaps we can equate the external facing business elements (e.g. customers, suppliers, competition) to the Somatic Nervous System, and the internal operations (Shared Services, Functional operations etc) to the Autonomic. In other words, what could the future of intelligent, internal business operations learn from the Autonomic Nervous System? As it turns out, quite a lot! The Autonomic Nervous System provides a)the capability for fight or flight in emergencies, b)capability building for rest and digest in non-emergencies and c)a routine factory that manages the digestive daily operation of the gut, complete with a "little brain".

Autonomic Business Operations
A perfectly evolved and automated business operation of the future might therefore need three similar capabilities.
a) Responsive operations to ramp up/down in emergencies
b) Regenerative operations to build internal capabilities
c) A organizational culture that fully supports whatever the business needs

1. Responsive operations: Steve Denning, one of the top experts on organization agility, identifies three major "laws" of an agile enterprise. I quote ...

  • the Law of the Customer—an obsession with delivering value to customers as the be-all and end-all of the organization.
  • the Law of the Small Team—a presumption that all work be carried out by small self -organizing teams, working in short cycles and focused on delivering value to customers—and
  • the Law of the Network—a continuing effort to obliterate bureaucracy and top-down hierarchy so that the firm operates as an interacting network of teams, all focused on working together to deliver increasing value to customers. 
Read more here...

2. Regenerative Operations: In a fascinating idea called the regenerative business, organizational change expert Carol Sanford calls for new approaches to people development and work design, to balance personal goals, societal needs and business goals. This would unlock new levels of innovation, financial results, and customer loyalty while building human capacity to contribute. Here's a book excerpt...

3. An adaptive organizational culture. There's an important difference between an adaptive and just a strong organizational culture. An adaptive organizational culture delivers better economic results over the long-term, as proven by numerous studies. Here's a short article on what it is and some tips to develop it.


The digital era brings along with it the tendency to chase short-term fads in technology, methodology and strategy. The smart money would be on heading towards where the puck is ultimately going to be. If the millennia of evolutionary biology is any indication, the trends in responsive operations, regenerative business operations and an adaptive organization culture is where the game is at. It seems to have worked just fine for us in the human species. 

Go forth and transform.


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