It Really Is A Jungle Out There

As in nature, corporations rely on instinct for survival, says Spinello in new book

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The animal kingdom often provides obvious metaphors for the predators-and-prey aspect of the business world, says Associate Dean of Faculties Richard Spinello. But while it may be tempting to liken executive boardrooms to the Serengeti plains, Spinello says one characteristic important to both settings defies the comparison: instinct.

Unlike genetically imprinted animal instinct, corporate instinct is a collective wisdom that informs decisions and implicitly shapes strategic directions, explains Spinello, a former software industry professional. Nor is instinct an innate quality in corporations, he says; it must be cultivated and utilized properly.

Spinello and co-authors Thomas Koulopolous and Wayne Toms - the president and practice leader, respectively, of The Delphi Group, a consulting firm - describe the concept and role of corporate instinct in their recently published book. Combining professional and academic insights, Corporate Instinct: Building a Knowing Enterprise for the 21st Century explains how a company's organizational structure can facilitate, or impede, development of corporate instinct.

Companies that fail to appreciate the significance of corporate instinct as a competitive cornerstone, the authors claim, are likely to suffer the fate of a hobbled gazelle.

Associate Dean of Faculties
Richard Spinello
(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"'Corporate instinct' may sound like another catch phrase," said Spinello, "but it refers to the awareness of, and ability to transfer to action, the knowledge which exists within a company. Some companies seem to be able to accomplish this constantly and consistently, and as a result they are able to adapt and often thrive. They continuously compete with their own best ideas and make them obsolete, and value the acquisition of new knowledge over the creation of corporate structure and standards."

The first of the book's three parts elaborates on the meaning of corporate instinct. Often, the authors say, corporate instinct is confused with corporate memory - the process which enables employees to collaborate without sophisticated dialogue or explicit instructions. While memory is neither inherently good nor bad, it "is selective and subjective" and can limit the organization's ability to innovate.

Companies that utilize corporate instinct tend to exhibit several common attitudes, say the authors. These include a willingness of management to share its knowledge capital with the organization, as well as an awareness of, and ability to disseminate, the accumulated knowledge throughout the organization.

"In organizations, people usually have an intuitive sense of how things get done; they may have trouble articulating it, but they know something is there," said Spinello. "This 'tacit knowledge' is the key to corporate instinct: How do you turn it into explicit knowledge? Accomplishing this helps enable a company to become what we call a 'knowing enterprise,' one which can readily tap its instinct."

The book discusses related concepts such as the "knowledge chain" - four stages which foster an organization's corporate instinct - and the "perpetual organization" approach, which eschews a permanent structure and is geared to current conditions and market demands. The authors review changes in the economic, managerial and social orders - touching on new definitions of capital, booming technology and diverse executive leadership styles, among others - and how these will make corporate instinct a vital asset for companies in the coming years.

Spinello, Koulopolous and Toms illustrate their points with numerous anecdotes from the corporate sector - such as Xerox Corp.'s struggles to diversify its products and the successes of Microsoft and Kraft General Foods - as well as parallels in areas such as sports and entertainment.

Corporate Instinct also contains a test which allows corporate representatives to measure their own corporate instinct and rank it against hundreds of other organizations that have already taken the test.

For Spinello, the book represents "an intersection between management and philosophy," a union of his scholarly interests with his co-authors' experienced insights. He and Koulopolous plan to bring the collaboration to a different setting this summer, when they teach a class in the Carroll Graduate School of Management.

"I saw my role as contributing some theoretical underpinnings to Tom's and Wayne's commentary," said Spinello. "There is a philosophical dimension to the matters we discuss: What is the nature of knowledge and how do we utilize it? Now that we've explored these questions in the book, we're looking to put the ideas to work in the classroom."

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