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Extending current management education and leadership development

Business schools have been educating increasing numbers of managers and leaders for decades. This has certainly contributed to creating more efficient organisations and industries. But have they also become more effective in the sense of serving all their stakeholders and contributing to a sustainable world? Definitely not! Complex organisational and societal problems persist and many seem to have become worse. Why?

I would like to illustrate the reason for this by using the analogy of stem cell research. Initially stem cells were manipulated to become specific cells, such as heart muscle cells. However, the cells did not grow into a heart. They merely became blobs of heart tissue in the Petri dish. Only after planting the cells into the fibrous skeleton of a heart (the connective tissue that is left after washing out all cells) did they grow to fill out the heart and eventually make it beat! Business schools are Petri dishes for growing good managers and leaders. Alas, the schools do not provide the ‘skeletons’ that represent the connecting structure of how an organisation, government, public function or industry should ideally be organised.  

The reason for this is that management education lacks an overarching, wholistic theory of organisation. Management education programmes consist of numerous management concepts, models, partial theories and methods. Some repeat the same ideas using different terminology; others overlap and even contradict each other. This partial and reductionistic paradigm is largely derived from observing the current organisational behaviour of selected case study systems, and thereby reproducing and entrenching the current thinking and behaviour of our problem-riddled social systems.

Systems thinking (and its related disciplines like complexity theory, cybernetics, operations research and chaos theory, among others) is a wholistic paradigm. It provides the principles of what constitutes wholes and how they function. To use the heart analogy again, manipulating stem cells into heart cells is a triumph of reductionistic scientific thinking. Planting them into the skeleton of a given whole represents wholistic thinking. Indeed, the whole (e.g. heart) is greater than (and different from) the sum of its parts (e.g. the cells). Reductionistic and wholistic thinking complement each other. Both are needed, each for a different purpose.

Systems thinking has been around for over half a century. Why has it not made a greater impact on management, or for that matter, science as a whole? I suggest that there are at least two reasons: 

  • Firstly, this body of knowledge (like that of management thinking) is a conglomerate of different and overlapping theoretical concepts and models associated with different scientific disciplines. Paradoxically, it is in itself a partial, instead of wholistic body of knowledge.
  • Secondly, it is not easy to apply in praxis for solving complex problems.

These deficiencies have been addressed by Biomatrix Theory and the Biomatrix Organisation and Societal Transformation Programmes.

Biomatrix Theory has succeeded in integrating the key concepts and models proposed by different systems thinkers from different scientific disciplines into one coherent, overarching transdisciplinary systems theory. This integration is achieved because of some unique theoretical contributions. The theory was co-produced by a team of researchers from different scientific disciplines (e.g. physics, biology, medicine, engineering, psychology, management science, futures research and musicology). It is therefore a meta-theory that is useful for facilitating a transdisciplinary system inquiry and design in the context of analysing and (dis)solving humanity’s complex problems.

The Biomatrix Organisation Transformation Programme applies Biomatrix Theory to systemic organisation development in a practical manner. It provides the ‘skeleton of connective tissues’ (i.e. the three-dimensional matrix framework) which coordinates the functional and cross-functional contributions of staff members in a synergistic manner and for the benefit of the whole. (Synergy is also the foundation of creativity and innovation). 

The programme educates managers of an organisation (such as the talent earmarked for senior and executive positions) in systems thinking and systemic organisation development. In facilitated team work, this knowledge is applied to the design of the organisational structure and regulatory frameworks, as well as the templates and procedures for environmental scanning, strategic and operational planning, performance management and organisational learning. These allow the organisation to change coherently and in harmony with its changing business environment. 

The participants also learn about systemic change management and implementation planning, and they design how the transformation will be managed and implemented. After completing the education part of the programme and becoming certified as systemic organisation change managers, they facilitate the implementation of the designs and thereby effect the transformation of their organisation. They can also act as internal consultants in future change interventions, including redesigning a specific organisational function and business process. 

The programme incorporates a diagnostic survey to identify the current systemic problems that will be dissolved in the course of the transformation. Typical examples of systemic organisational problems are silo behaviour, internal competition, bureaucracy, empires, duplications, repeated mistakes, lack of creativity and innovation, declining market shares, outdated products and services, inappropriate resource distribution, change fatigue, demotivated staff and multiple and failed change interventions, among others.

The Biomatrix Societal Transformation Programme applies Biomatrix Theory to the redesign of societal systems, such as industries (e.g. the energy, nutrition or finance industry) and public functions (e.g. provision of education, health care, housing and infrastructure). 

The programme participants redesign the whole system of which their organisation (e.g. a government department or industry body) is a part, using the supply chain framework. For example, the Department of Energy could use the programme to redesign the electricity supply chain for maximum renewable energy provision. It would need to involve all links in the chain, from the various electricity generators and their input providers (e.g. the coal or uranium mines, oil refineries and agricultural producers of biomass), via transporters (e.g. overland lines) to different consumer groups. The broad overarching design will allow each link to review its purpose and contribution from the perspective of benefitting the larger whole. This could even give rise to a change in business models, such as the coal-based power plants changing from being continuous energy suppliers to being complementary ones that step in when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. While current coal plants cannot do so and remain profitable, new plants using different technologies can.

Because it requires the agreement of relatively independent organisations, implementing the design of a public system is not as easy as that of a private organisation.

To create alignment, the programme uses an on-line methodology, the BiomatrixJam, which allows stakeholders to participate in identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. Creating an ideal design is an important contribution per se, as it illustrates how a system could function differently and produce better outcomes. The significance of lacking an ideal design is illustrated by the following response of the G20 to the financial crisis in March 2009: “We know what caused the finance crisis but we do not know what to do about it.”  Instead of spending a few million on redesigning the system, trillions were thrown at the financial Petri dish, thereby growing more of the malignant cells that caused the crisis in the first place. 

All systems in the public domain can benefit by a redesign. Sustainability (or non-sustainability) emerges from the interface of nature’s systems with social and technological systems along interacting supply chains. Sustainability cannot be achieved by one isolated link in a chain, or by a single scientific discipline. In designing a sustainable future the whole multidimensional web of life (i.e. the biomatrix) must be considered. Biomatrix Systems Theory provides a transdisciplinary ‘skeleton’ within which the specific contributions of different scientific disciplines can interact synergistically to co-produce more sustainable systems.

Biomatrix Systems Theory has been chosen by USB-ED as its official research paradigm in applied sustainability studies. Together with BiomatrixWeb, USB-ED also co-delivers the Biomatrix Organisation and Societal Transformation Programmes. A one-day workshop for each programme provides an overview of the theory, methodology and its practical application to a client organisation. Information on the workshops can be found at the following links:


Dr Elisabeth Dostal is a leading systems thinker who co-developed Biomatrix Systems Theory. She applies the theory to the development and transformation of social systems in both theory (through research and publications and teaching in MBA and postgraduate HR and OD programmes) and praxis (as management consultant and facilitator of action learning projects in public and private sector organisations).
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