Genes, Memes and Norms

Over the last 12 months or so a large part of our research has been dedicated to thinking about cultural change within organisations and how it occurs. To help us with this process we have extensively explored the biological and social sciences in an attempt to better understand how evolutionary dynamics and processes occur. As most evolutionary biologists will tell you, there is a relatively ‘simple’ formula for describing an evolutionary process, which is, any population of variable replicators coupled with any filter or sorting device will produce a process of evolution. However, as we have highlighted before, the key element to this formula is variation, no heterogeneity or variation, no evolution.

As Manuel De Landa has previously shown us, in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, our current knowledge of chemical and cultural replicators amounts to roughly three different types, genes, memes and norms. Now, as we know, genes are chemical templates transmitted by traditional means of biological reproduction, and as our knowledge develops, by other means such as genetic and biomolecular engineering. The concept of ‘meme’ or memetics is a fairly recent creation, and as such, is still considered to be a neologism. It was the biological scientist Richard Dawkins who first coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 publication The Selfish Gene. He used the term to describe a replicating unit that transmits information or patterns of behaviour through the means of imitation. And finally, the third set of replicators within this triad are norms, which refer to information or behaviour that is transmitted through enforced social and cultural obligation. Despite the current scientific dominance of genetics and the relatively recent interest in memes, it is the latter of these three replicators that is of interest to us here.

We often hear organisations talking about their inherent DNA, or that certain values and qualities are embedded in their genes. It should be relatively self evident that the use of these descriptors is purely metaphorical, as organisations are not produced through means of traditional biological reproduction and do not contain a genetic chemical template. However, memes and norms, as actual non-metaphorical replicators, can be found in abundance throughout most organisations, in fact, they are the most significant elements of behavioural and cultural change that we can currently identify.

Organisations are made up of a number of different parts, some human (people), some non-human (things). Maximising the integration and cooperation of all of these parts (human and non-human) is crucial to exploiting the potential of any organisation. However, achieving this can sometimes be difficult, the desire to apply control to some of the parts can invariably be too strong. Attempting to prescribe and control the behaviour, of at least the human parts, can often have near corrosive effects. For any organisation to be innovative, or at least productive, its behavioural thresholds should be a socially and materially self-organised activity with, if necessary, some shared parameters of conduct, but be nonetheless, open and licensed. When behaviours are prescribed through enforced obligation within an organisation a clear separation appears between the public and the private. What is demonstrated in public and what is manifested in private become radically different. Pockets of innovation are stifled and forced underground as the subtleties of informality are lost and the rigid structures of formality take their place. As Richard Sennett has described in his most recent book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation the effects of this transition can have grave consequences for the process of dialogic learning. ‘Formal cooperation sets down the rules of engaging with other people: the precise information you will act on, what you expect of your partners, how a contract will be enforced. This is pattern behaviour…’ Enforcing the separation between the public and the private forces informality out of meeting rooms and into the corridors, bars and conference halls of the great unsaid. These then become the missed opportunities of intent, as generally, ‘the dialogic conversation flourishes through informality; the odd twists and turns of these conversations can result in win-win exchanges’. It is through multiple forms of these exchanges that the process of dialogic learning takes place and organisations truly evolve.

Evolutionary processes are not optimising forces, as we are often led to believe, but compromising forces. The possibilities created by evolutionary processes are limited by critical thresholds of variation, and as we stated above, no variation or heterogeneity, no evolution. Unfortunately, the new and somewhat pervasive novelty for prescribing behaviour in organisations is serving to harden these critical thresholds, thus creating fewer possibilities for the production of variation. The desire for every organisation to state, in the normative sense, that as long as it demonstrates the ‘right’ behaviours then its success will be guaranteed, is quickly becoming the ‘new normal’ itself. The clear message from the biological and social sciences is that we should think less about prescribing formal behaviour, and more about creating both the conditions and environments in which both variation and the types of informal exchanges, that we have just described, will flourish. In this sense, the homogenising cultural tendencies of organisations should not be promoted, but resisted, as it will only be through the exploration of heterogeneity and difference that they will ever have the chance of evolving and thus surviving.