The Business of Becoming

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Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2015

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3 MINUTE READ

The long tail of ontology can really hang you up the most.

Take Cartesian ontology, for instance. French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650) saw the world as bits of matter that exist totally independently from each other. This is an example of what the philosophers call “substance metaphysics,” and it pretty much dominated western philosophy for the 300 or so years after Descartes’ death.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, when British mathematician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead challenged Descartes’ weltanschauung by suggesting that reality does not consist of static, enduring objects, but rather of interrelated experiential events or processes.

Under the moniker of “process philosophy,” Whitehead’s ontology describes a world of physical, organic, social, and cognitive processes that interact dynamically. Rather than study what is, ‘processists’ analyze what is occurring. They see reality as a state of becoming – a journey rather than a destination.

While most ordinary people wouldn’t know Descartes from a shopping cart, if you asked them to describe the world in a sentence, they would most likely play back his version instead of Whitehead’s. Let’s face it: Seeing ourselves as material beings, in a world made up of stable, visible objects, is much easier than imagining ourselves in one consisting of far less tangible, ever-changing, and interrelated processes.

The same applies to business. It’s far easier to think of an enterprise as a kit of parts than as a dynamic confluence of processes. Large, vertically integrated organizations are like a bundle of separate, specialized streams of activity with only as much interrelatedness as is deemed necessary by their silo'd inhabitants. Most of the time they’d rather not speak to each other, let alone admit that they are in any way related.

This Cartesian view of the organization has been reinforced by the product-centric legacy of the last 200 years of industrialization. When you think of Toyota, you don’t think of robotic assembly; you think of cars. When you think of Nestlé, you don’t think of artesian wells; you think of bottled water. Yet it is precisely this attitude that has gotten us and our organizations into much of the post-industrial trouble that we’re in.

Take bottled water, for instance. If you think of it as an object, it’s easy to sleep at night after you’ve bought it, consumed it, and thrown it away. But if you think of it as a process, sleep is a little more difficult. It begins as privatized access to fresh water – which most of us would consider a public asset – bought for millionths of a cent per litre. It is shipped to bottling facilities, wrapped in plastic, and sold back to consumers for $2–3 per litre.

Meeting America’s demand for bottled water requires 17 million barrels of oil annually – not including the oil required for shipping. Of the 167 bottles used by the average American every year, only 38 are recycled. The rest end up in landfill, in waterways, and in the ever-expanding, 7.7 million square-mile Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

Seen this way, it’s not hard to view a bottle of water as a “moment” occurring at the nexus of many interrelated processes, from macro to micro, historic to contemporary, organic to inorganic, and back again. From millions of years of hydro-geological and fossil fuel formation to the industrial processes of extraction, the construction, and operation of bottling facilities, the manufacture and operation of heavy equipment and trucks used for extraction and shipping, the refinement of the oil used to make the bottles and fuel the trucks and heavy equipment, the burning of that fuel and its emission as CO2 into the atmosphere, the resulting climate change, the collection and disposal of used containers, and the fatal ingestion of discarded plastic by fish and fowl: Suddenly the simple notion of the bottle as a discreet, independent object gives way to a much more complex picture, one that is literally dangerous to consider in Cartesian terms.

Because process philosophy argues that the most basic elements of reality can be regarded as experiential, seeing the world through Whitehead’s eyes is a critical prerequisite for service innovation and a key component of human-centered design. In viewing reality as a process of becoming, the business of innovation compels us to consider the complex interrelatedness of events and experiences required to generate the innovation of business.

Let’s hope Whitehead’s tail is a lot longer than Descartes’. wn

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