Sunday, April 19, 2009

DNA, Phentoypes in Biology, Corporations and every organization

Richard Dawkins got it right in the Selfish Gene.

DNA in Biology
The job of DNA is to make proteins.The thing that makes DNA special is that they are combinations of chemicals that can replicate themselves. The overall rule is things will do what they can do.

Replication occurs under conditions of limited resources. The ones that replicate more have some kind of advantage in a given environment. The tricky part is that DNA has an effect on their environment. Dawkins says that if you look at the world using a thought model with the gene at it's center, individual bodies can be seen as a survival machine for genes. The particular characteristics of the individual body is called a phenotype.

The individual (phenotype) is a convenient word to capture what happens when particular chemicals interact over time in a series of unique space.times. The important particular chemicals in question are proteins. DNA is the blueprint for making proteins. That's how DNA effects what living things can do.

The more efficient the phenotype is at reproducing, the more a particular DNA can replicate. As cycles of replication occur there are more of some DNA than other DNA. That's called the survival of the fittest. Everything evolves because the fit reproduce more than the less fit.

The common mistake is to take the phenotype as the actor. That gets very confusing because sometimes what makes it easy for DNA to replicate is not the same as what makes it easy for the phenotype to reproduce. That's called a parasite. Sometimes what makes it easy for a parasite also makes it easy for the phenotype. Over time, groups of DNA co evolve because a particular phenotype makes it easy for all of them to replicate.

One way to look at it is that monkeys evolve. Another way to look at it is that collections of DNA coevolve in an evolving environment that we call a monkey. You say potayto, I say potahto.

Organizational DNA
Among humans, Dawkins finds an additional kind of replicator. He calls it a meme. It is a set of words, sounds and images that have the property of being able to replicate patterns of nerve connections that affect perception in human brains. Since what we see determines what we think, it's pretty important.

Human individuals, like every other phenotype tends to do what they can do (unless something stops them). In the best cases, they stop doing things that will have bad consequences in the future. That's called have a long term vision. It's also called smart. But often they don't stop doing things that will have bad consequences in the future. That's called short sighted. It's also called stupid.

Sometime in the recent past we humans decided that a business corporation is an individual. Actually, it's only a set of contracts made between individuals. A corporation is not a person. It is not good or bad. A business does not have social responsibility. It has business interests. The intertwined collection of contracts is in the service of maximizing it's interests. The appropriate interest is making more money in the appropriate time frame.

Robert Reich gets it right in Super Capitalism.

Anyway a public corporation is a collection of explicit rules by which people agree to do X and get Y. For example, as a shareholder, I agree to give you my money and get in return the benefit of you investing my money to make more money. The job of the Board of Directors is to make sure everyone else is doing their jobs.

But the hard part is that there are explicit rules and implicit rules. It's the implicit rules that count. They are the proximate environment for decisions about what to do next. All the rules are about getting more power. Having power is the best way to reduce the fear of uncertainty. Power is the ability to establish the constraints on individual's movements through space.time. The more power the individual (phenotype) has, the happier they are.

Power is reflected in money rewards and status rewards. Whoever has the final power gets to replicate the corporate DNA. When status rewards and money rewards are in the service of creating more money in the long run, everyone is happy and the whole thing moves nicely along. When the rewards are out of whack, it's much harder to respond to threats and opportunities in the environment.

When the environment is stable, this all happens in the background. As long is money is coming in the door, very few people care. But when the money stops the whole process undergoes scruktiny until the money starts again. Then everyone relaxes and does whatever they can do.

The mechanism is actually pretty simple
The top level power actors decide what activity gets rewarded and what doesn't. They make their decisions based on what they see. The particular memes in their heads mostly determine what they see. The second level power actors act in a way to get rewarded using their own memes. The third level power actors do the same. And so on and so forth as it ripples through the organization and out into the much more important environment outside organizational space.time.

We're seeing a nice example of this at the Federal Level where the top power actor looks at the world with a very different set of memes from his predecessor. Sooner or later, it will work it's way through the Federal, State and regional government. Those who share his meme will replicate easily. Those who don't will replicate much more slowly. Given the speed with which a meme can replicate because of the internet, this will all probably happen much faster than previously thought possible.

A revealing example is the speed of the response to the financial "meltdown." A global financial system on the edge of destruction, pulled back from the brink in less than 100 days.

The good news is that if everybody has the space.time and works in an environment with the appropriate rewards, organizational change can happen very quickly. That's why the key to fixing education is by giving space.time to principals at the school building level. And making sure they get rewarded for doing what they are supposed to do. It works the same way in every organization.

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