STIA - Arie de Geus Speech LO2949

Richard Karash (
Wed, 27 Sep 1995 00:27:37 -0400 (EDT)

Arie de Geus' topic was "Infrastructure and Its Impact on Organizational
Success." Arie was the chief planning officer of the Shell group when the
scenario planning methodology was created. His HBR paper "Planning as
Learning" is a classic in our field.

He began by reporting on an internal Shell study of companies older than
Shell, looking for the characteristics for corporate sustainability and

"All the surviving companies had turned over their portfolio of business
completely, at least once" in their history. From the data, the Shell
researchers concluded that learning was a primary element of corporate
survival. But what are the infrastructure factors that support learning.

Arie told a story about birds in the UK and the factors for learning.
I'll paraphrase his story, "In the UK, there is a monopoly distributor of
milk throughout the country. For years, beginning in the early 1900s,
milk was delivered on the doorstep of every home in the country in open
bottles. The Robin and the Tit-mouse both adapted their internal organs
to digest milk and stole sips from the early morning deliveries.

"But, then in the 30's the distributor put an aluminum seal on the top
of the bottle. Very quickly the Tit-mouse learned to penetrate the seal
to get their milk. The Robin never learned. Why?

"The Tit-mouse is a flocking bird. They pair up and are territories for
only two months of the year. For the rest of the year they flock with
other Tit-mice and range widely. In flocking, the Tit-mouse is able to
propagate learnings (such as penetrating the milk seal) to others of the

"The Robin, on the other hand is territorial all year. The only
communication from one Robin to another is an angry, 'Get out of my
yard!' As a result, Robins are unable to propagate learning.

"So, the lessons for org learning are: 1) Lots of individuals, 2)
Individual innovation, 3) ** Good Flocking **"

My apologies in this paraphrase; Arie was wonderfully articulate and told
this more clearly than I have been able to repeat.

So, companies should encourage good flocking... To me this means a
continuous variety of new contacts and a good chance to talk with them.
Arie suggested that training programs are good flocking: bringing together
people from different units, provided there is a good bar at the site!
Job rotation is another vehicle to promote flocking.

I identify strongly with Arie's picture; it matches what has felt
effective to me at several points in my career.

I see friends leaving large organizations in favor of smaller ones to get
more freedom for innovation and (I suspect) better flocking opportunities.
And, companies downsizing, with more performance pressure on the
survivors, must mean less chance for flocking. Some people look towards
the virtual organization, assembling people for tasks from a floating pool
of insiders and outsiders. All these, in my understanding of Arie's
theory, represent real threats to learning in large organizations and
therefore threats to their long-term survivability.

So long for tonight, and... Good flocking to all!

         Richard Karash ("Rick") |  <>
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