Organizational Intelligence: Lessons from Living Systems


Part II of III

According to Professor William E. Halal, “Organizational intelligence is the capacity of an organization to create knowledge and use it to strategically adapt to its environment or marketplace. It is similar to I.Q., but framed at an organizational level.”[1] Author Verna Allee defines it as “the cognitive capacities and capabilities of an organization.”[2] In sum, organizational intelligence is tapping into your organization’s collective knowledge quotient, and then applying new learning capabilities to seize opportunities to gain advantages in the marketplace. Utilizing organizational intelligence does more for you than just help you stay afloat; it’s about perceiving and taking advantage of new trends and shifts in the marketplace, then creating strategies to stay competitive in unstable environments. Organization’s who place a high value on learning and accessing new knowledge increase in strength and are better prepared to absorb fast changing environments. How can organizational and business leaders prepare themselves and their teams to become more aware of the environmental changes in their sphere of business? This article addresses a few ingredients essential to help you, the organizational leader, access new knowledge, and use this knowledge to adjust organizational strategy to meet the changes emerging in your environment. First, we must look to our living systems to get our queues.

Learn from Living Organisms

One way organization’s can make the adjustment is to think like living organisms, which learn to live in, adapt and survive in changing environments such as seasons of drought or when imminent danger looms. Animals have built-in systems of awareness and networks that alert them to apparent changes emerging in their environment. Do you remember the tsunami that hit Thailand’s beaches unrepentantly on Christmas Day 2006? It was noted that birds and animals were seen taking flight away from the ocean to higher ground moments before the tide hit the beach. In other words, these animals sensed atmospheric changes in their ecosystem, which triggered an internal “flight” mechanism. The world of living organisms can teach us many things. For one, a feeling or sense that something is out of alignment in your environment, and with a little intuition and foresight, one can make the needed changes to sustain oneself, even thrive, through what’s looming ahead.

Second, you’ll need to depend on your team and learn to optimize their collective intelligence.

Optimize Team Intelligence

Organizational intelligence requires a constant conversation with your team, not just at the executive level but also throughout the organization, including the shop floor. It’s a top to bottom conversation. Therefore, as you gather your team members’ mine for their collective insights and knowledge, which are crucial for navigational purposes. You should not underestimate the wisdom of your team members regardless of their background, experience or education. Pure wisdom often comes from the simple-minded. Certain employees in your organization interact with suppliers, customers and others vital to your existence. Many times the information shared in these exchanges don’t make it to the top, and organizations miss vital intelligence data required to lead masterfully.

In the story you read, Bob’s two companions had no experience neither as campers nor hiking, however, a conversation would have been better than none at all. In this respect, community learning is essential for acquiring new knowledge. Rapid changes in the environment must include speedy discussions. One leader can’t have all the right answers all the time but a team’s collective insights, knowledge and intuition can be the deal breaker in situations like Bob’s excursion.

How well do you tap into your team’s intelligence?

[1] William E. Halal. Organizational Intelligence: What is it, and how can managers use it? Strategy and Business, Fourth Quarter, 1997. http://www.strategybusiness.com/press/16635507/12644?tid=230&pg=all.
[2] Allee, Verna. The Future of Knowledge, Increasing Prosperity through Value Networks.  Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003.

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