In the way of things someone called me yesterday and in the course of the conversation asked me how much I knew about biomimicry (next to nothing), and today a completely different person, knowing nothing of the conversation, sent me an article on biomimicry that she thought I'd be interested in.
So now I'm learning about biomimicry! The Biomimicry Institute says:
Biomimicry is the science and art of emulating Nature's best biological ideas to solve human problems. Non-toxic adhesives inspired by geckos, energy efficient buildings inspired by termite mounds, and resistance-free antibiotics inspired by red seaweed are examples of biomimicry happening today.
The Institute itself was founded in 2005 by science writer and consultant Janine Benyus, in response to overwhelming interest in the subject following the publication of her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
It is a not-for-profit organization that promotes the study and imitation of nature's remarkably efficient designs, bringing together scientists, engineers, architects and innovators who can use those models to create sustainable technologies.
The article on the topic was from Fast Company and is titled Biomimicry Challenge: IDEO Taps Octopi and Flamingos to Reorganize the USGBC. (The US Green Building Council) Although it's an interesting article about thinking about organization design through a bio-mimicry lens, as I was reading it, unfortunately, my scoff reflex kicked in (a peculiarly British trait that I am trying to eradicate now I live in the land of can-do). The reflex was triggered by the sentence "After holding interviews with USGBC stakeholders, the IDEO team quickly uncovered a tenet central to their solution: A hierarchical, top-down approach wasn't working for USGBC". Which organization does it work for? At this point I wondered what the Council was paying for this flash of insight. The article continues:
"We very much identified the idea for a stronger sense of community and connectedness that was more flexible–more about person to person than chapter to national body." McGee then told a biology story about mycorrhiza fungi, which grows in a fungal mat in the ground between the trees that have access to both sun and water, distributing these necessary nutrients between the trees. When McGee drew this system, the designers instantly realized it was a perfect model: What if, instead of a hierarchical relationship, the national body (like the fungi) was in a supportive relationship with chapters (the trees), moving information and resources around as necessary?"
If not rocket science another science.
Then I remembered an article I read by Hinrichs, G. (2009) Organic Organization Design. OD Practitioner, Vol 41, No. 4. She makes the point (but does not call it biomimicry but Org2Design™) that "Nature and adaptation are better models for dynamic organizational environments than the efficient but inflexible machine models" and continues by noting that generally organizations are moving from a mechanistic form to an organic form characterized by being purpose driven, open, whole, locally focus and empowered, distributed/networked, connected, diverse, growing/changing. Her organization model is a mollusk. (I sometimes show this in my training courses and get a variety of responses).
More than fifty years ago Burns and Stalker's work on mechanistic and organic organizations found that 'Like other living things, organic organizations need to adapt to their ever changing circumstances, therefore they have less specialization and formalization and are less hierarchical than mechanistic organizations; they also engage in considerably more lateral communication and co-ordination.' (See Organization Theory, by Hatch and Cunliffe for more on this).
So what have I learned about bio-mimicry in today's brief canter? Well, it's definitely useful for science and technology but, as noted in the Fast Company article, "One challenge the team faced was that they found it difficult to isolate bio-inspired solutions for some of USGBC's organizational needs that were very human indeed". I'm left thinking that the fit isn't that great between bio-mimicry and organization design, even so the language and concepts of bio-mimicry could provide a good vehicle for being innovative on the design, and because the language of bio-mimicry is newer and more seductive and therefore more sellable than the more established language of 'organic organizations' we may see more organic organizations being designed.
Meanwhile I'm waiting for my friend who works at the USGBC to respond to my email asking him for his view on the IDEO/Biomimicry Institute piece of work and the impact it has had on the organization. (Trust but verify).