Education: Management: Look to nature's example when making changes in the corporate world

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You have no doubt heard of "the virtual organisation", where outsourcing is thought to be creating a world in which once-huge companies are reduced to their "cores". You may even be familiar with "the learning organisation", where knowledge of all kinds is supposedly vigorously managed, shared and leveraged. But prepare now for the arrival of "the agile corporation".

Predictably perhaps, the idea has been around for a while in the US. But next week a conference will aim to put the notion of "corporate agility" on the European map. With representatives of such organisations as American Express, the Inland Revenue and even a local authority on hand, the intention is to explain how mastery of "10 key principles and practices of strategic change" can help to ensure success in an ever more turbulent world.

The conference organiser, Business Intelligence, says the prerequisites are creating agile structures; energising leadership; developing agile work-forces; supporting proactive change; accelerating processes; mobilising support through such means as organisational learning; communicating change; evaluating change; sustaining momentum and realising that this is a journey without an arrival point.

Sound familiar? It should. After all, how many times have you been told that change is happening faster than ever before or that the future is now.

Even allowing for the hyperbole of all this, the ideas behind the agile corporation are sound enough. Just as the quality movement seemed to a certain extent to be founded on the notion that, previously, companies deliberately set out to make low-grade products, so this latest addition to the management consultant's lexicon suggests that hitherto companies had succeeded by sticking to what they had always done.

That may have been true of some organisations. But the best have consistently adjusted to the prevailing conditions. In some cases, they actually reinvent themselves. The US electronics group Motorola, for instance, is now renowned for its mobile telephones, but it started with car radios. Even more dramatically, its Finnish rival Nokia was once in the paper business.

But, as the management thinker David Hurst has pointed out, it is not always necessary to go to such lengths. While continuing to operate in the same general areas, companies should constantly renew themselves by such means as setting "stretch goals" for the development of new products and deliberately phasing out old ones before they become obsolete.

In his book Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organisational Change (Harvard Business School Press), Hurst borrows extensively from the natural world to explain how organisations have "life cycles". In this analogy, change is constant, though its pace is not uniform. Sometimes it is rapid and "nonlinear", at other times it is slower and more predictable in its direction. At the same time, though, organisations need to realise that they can affect this process - just as farmers and growers have long done by setting fire to forests or heaths.

The idea is that this creates patches in which fresh things can grow. It does not take much of a leap of the imagination to see how this translates into the notion of encouraging innovation - a word that is, after all, on everybody's lips these days. And it can be seen in practice at companies, for example the US computer and electronics company Hewlett-Packard, that regularly break themselves up into smaller business units.

All of which is designed to demonstrate that, of course, it is true that - as the conference publicity puts it - "today's executive has to lead and master change with all its critical, competitive issues". And it is even more true that success will not - as the same brochure also stresses - depend on "one-off change programmes". Or even allegiance to labels such such as "the agile corporation".

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