Most of the world’s largest companies have a half-life that is shortening at nearly one year per year and getting shorter all the time. In addition some of the worlds institutions with the most critical data to civilization, such as the World Health Organization and various national archives, are not necessarily designed to last as long as the civilization they support. However there are some organizations, communities of practice, and natural systems that have lasted for centuries, and in some cases over a millennia. The Organizational Continuity Project hopes to discover the stories behind these long-lived organizations, and develop this knowledge into a discipline of shareable knowledge.
In addition to historical research there are now organizations that are using new decentralized systems of trust and organization that are emerging which may change our concepts of what exactly a company or institution really is. In fact some may be emerging more as decentralized communities of practice, like martial arts, but more focused on a business or cultural interest. The Organization Continuity Project will be looking to understand the principles behind these, and how historical systems may help them develop into lasting ecosystems.
In February 02019, Long Now held a small charrette at The Interval to broaden our thinking about building long-lived institutions. The group consisted of Long Now staff, board members, and outside experts. It opened with Peter Schwartz, a founding board member of Long Now and author of The Art of the Long View, giving an overview of his work in scenario planning for organizations.
Schwartz discussed how organizations are often limited by mental maps in the choices they make about the future. Effective scenario planning helps organizations build a broader set of mental maps so that they are better prepared for a changing future. The test of a good scenario, Schwartz argued, is not whether or not it is accurate. Rather, it’s about whether or not the leadership of an organization is influenced to make better decisions in light of that scenario.
Following Schwartz, Samo Burja, a researcher specializing in how civilizations function, introduced the idea of intellectual dark matter, which he defines as “knowledge we cannot see publicly, but whose existence we can infer because our institutions would fly apart if the knowledge we see were all there was.”
Burja explored how civilizations have historically lost knowledge, information, and in some cases even the foundations of their entire societies. In so doing, he was able to highlight many areas that any organization aspiring for long-term survival must avoid.
Following Burja, Alexander Rose gave an overview of some of his research into what type of organizations last, what they have in common, and which elements and strategies they developed that have contributed to their survival. Unfortunately, some of the longest-lived organizations, such as the Catholic church or a temple building company in Japan, have some of the least portable lessons for us. Their success is too singular, and the result of highly specific circumstances that will never apply to another organization.
As we delve into the stories of the world’s longest lived organizations more deeply, we are looking for mechanisms that we can borrow and put into practice as cultural institutions, companies, and governments. In so doing, we hope to extend the lifespan of many more organizations so that they are better able to address issues facing humanity that need more than a few years to solve. Imagine if the World Health Organization had been around for a millennia or two, with all their health data intact, how valuable of a resource this would be. It seems that it is our duty to try to preserve and pass on our civilizational resources and knowledge so that they are accessible to future generations.
To broaden our thinking about the mechanisms of long-term systemic success, we heard from complexity researcher Dr. Eric Berlow, who has been mapping ecological systems to see how robust or fragile they may be. Berlow’s detailed how studies of these complex systems are used to create beautiful and informative visuals that clearly map how dependencies in a system combine to create the whole.
The recurring theme in nature, Berlow said, is that everything is connected, but not equally connected or randomly connected. “The non-randomness in the patterning of the architecture of nature,” Berlow concluded, “is where the library of information about longevity exists.”
In the afternoon, the director of our own Rosetta Project, Dr. Laura Welcher, a PhD linguist, discussed one of the longest lived human systems — language itself. While language has been with us for a very long time, it is an evolving and changing system. Welcher pointed out the drastic difference between preserving information vs meaning.
The last talk of the day came from one of Long Now’s board members, Katherine Fulton. Fulton is a leading thinker on the future of philanthropy, and has worked for many companies and foundations as they transition from one generation to the next.
Fulton pointed out that generational change, and how it is handled, is often one of the most critical moments in any organization that hopes to last more than a decade or two. In times of generational change, much of the ability for a successful transition comes from the founding DNA and governing systems that were set up at the organization’s inception.
This is just the beginning of our inquiry into understanding how organizations last. Key questions remain: How do we create best practices for governing systems? How do we develop a culture that is attuned to the nuances of systemic robustness? Fundamentally, this is a systems design question. For a system to last, it needs to have ways of adapting to a changing world, and be able to fail in small ways, and recover from those failures without having the whole system crash. We suspect that as we learn more about specific examples of long-lived organizations, we will hear about several instances in which they almost failed, only to recover and become stronger as a result. As we continue our learning, we hope to create the beginning of a knowledge base that is applicable not only to Long Now, but to any organization aiming to thrive across generations.
James Anderson of Baillie Gifford