Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, Volume 4, Issue 3, 2009
A neuroanatomical approach to exploring organizational
performance
David Gillingwater
Department of Civil & Building Engineering, Loughborough University
Loughborough, LE11 3TU, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)1509 223401
Email: d.gillingwater@lboro.ac.uk
Thomas H. Gillingwater
College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, EH8 9XD, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 131 650 3724
Email: t.gillingwater@ed.ac.uk
Abstract
Insights gained from studying the human brain have begun to open up promising new areas of research
in the behavioural and social sciences. Neuroscience-based principles have been incorporated into areas
such as business management, economics and marketing, leading to the development of artificial neural
networks, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing and, most recently, organizational cognitive neuroscience.
Similarly, the brain has been used as a powerful metaphor for thinking about and analysing the nature
of organizations. However, no existing approach to organizational analysis has taken advantage of
contemporary neuroanatomical principles, thereby missing the opportunity to translate core
neuroanatomical knowledge into other, non-related areas of research. In this essentially conceptual
paper, we propose several ways in which neuroanatomical approaches could be used to enhance
organizational theory, practice and research. We suggest that truly interdisciplinary and collaborative
research between neuroanatomists and organizational analysts is likely to provide novel approaches to
exploring and improving organizational performance.
Keywords: neuroanatomy, organizations, organizational performance, interdisciplinary research
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Drs Gordon Findlater, Fanney Kristmundsdottir
and Simon Parson for assistance with preparing the figures, and Simon Bailey and Professor Violina
Rindova for constructive comments on the manuscript.
David Gillingwater and Thomas H. Gillingwater
35
1 INTRODUCTION
Organizational analysis - the study of organizations as entities within an environment, their social
structures, technologies, cultures, physical structures and processes (Hatch & Cunliffe, 2006) - is one of
the most complex yet important areas of business and management research. Many different
approaches have been employed to assist our understanding, and improvement, of organizations and
their performance. Several of these have used comparisons with other entities or explanations often in
the form of a metaphor or analogy - as a means to try and convey images or concepts associated with
an organization or organizations.
One of the most significant recent advances in our understanding of organizations and
organizational performance has stemmed from comparing organizations to biological organisms. As
Morgan (2006) puts it, we find ourselves thinking about organizations as artificial “living systems”,
existing in a wider environment on which they depend for the satisfaction of various needs. This
awareness has led to a focus on understanding the principle that organizations, like organisms, are
“open” to their environment. Thus, organizations need to be able to monitor, as well as respond
appropriately and rapidly to, changes in their internal and external environments to maintain
homeostasis (their primary „physiological‟ state). Imbalance resulting from an inability either to sense
or respond to changes in internal and/or external environments can be potentially disastrous for an
organization resulting in „strategic inertia‟ (the inability to generate commitment), „strategic dilution‟
(the inability to provide leadership) and/or „strategic drift‟ (the inability to focus on where the
organization is heading) (Freedman, 2003). The detrimental consequences of „strategic drift‟ have been
identified in companies experiencing rapid change (c.f., Pauwels & Matthyssens, 2003) and also in
some extreme cases across an entire industrial sector (e.g. the US auto industry, including such well-
known companies as General Motors and Ford of America (c.f., Womack et al., 2007)). Individual
organizations with enhanced sensing capacities and capable of adapting themselves to best fit their
current and more importantly - future operating environments are therefore likely to be those that we
refer to as high-performing organizations, who will be „superior‟, gaining competitive advantage over
their rivals and in the process survive and prosper (c.f., McKnight et al., 2001; Christensen et al., 1998;
Venkatraman & Ramanujam, 1986; Hall, 1980).
These fundamental insights have led some organizational analysts to consider the human brain as
a useful metaphor for thinking about the nature and performance of organizations. In 1972 Stafford
Beer published what in many respects can be regarded as the first serious attempt to devise a coherent
if eclectic model of organizational control (Beer, 1972). Based on physiological principles derived
from studies of neuronal function and dissatisfaction with synthetic electronic brain models (such as
Ross Ashby‟s „Homeostat‟ and Grey Walter‟s „Tortoise‟) (Asaro, 2006), his concern lay primarily with
developing and extending the application of cybernetics into the realm of management through the
derivation of a systemic model of control eventually to take the form of the highly influential „Viable
System Model‟ (VSM) (Christopher, 2007). More recently, the brain metaphor has been used to draw
attention to the importance of information processing, learning and intelligence, providing a frame of
reference for understanding and assessing organizations (Morgan, 2006). In terms of organizational
performance, this metaphor-based prognosis suggests that organizations should foster moves toward
„holographic organization‟ – as team-based and client-centred self-organized learning systems that
place primary emphasis on being open to enquiry and self-criticism (c.f., Nonaka & Takuchi, 1995).
Other uses of the brain metaphor tend to be more partial, for example, in assisting with the generation
of flexible production system models (Garud & Kotha, 1994).
The brain-based metaphor has also been employed with respect to “softer” aspects of
neuroscience, such as cognitive mapping (Tegarden & Sheetz, 2003) and the notion of contemporary
organizations as so-called „intellectually impaired bureaucracies‟ (Ambrose, 1995). Similarly, the
notion of memory as applied to organizations („organizational memory‟ or „organizational
remembering‟) has taken advantage of brain-based metaphors, leading to the use of terms such as „the
brain-based organization‟ (Walsh & Ungson, 1991; Harari, 1994; Feldman & Feldman, 2006). Thus,
the potential benefits that could result from awareness of, and adoption of biological principles adapted
from, such brain analogies are well recognised: “Today, knowledge - or more colloquially, brainpower
and intelligence - has become the key determinant for economic and business success” (Harari, 1994).
That brain-based approaches can be valuable beyond their use as a metaphor can be found from
other fields of research. For example, neuroscience-based principles have been successfully adopted in
order to develop a new field in microeconomics „neuroeconomics‟. As Camerer et al. (2004) put it,
neuroeconomics uses knowledge about brain mechanisms to inform economic theory by opening up the
„black box‟ of the brain, much as organizational economics opened up the theory of the firm with the
introduction of organizational behaviour. The principal concern of this approach is with bettering our
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understanding of individuals‟ preferences and preference-seeking strategies and their decision-making
processes (McCabe, 2003). More contentious developments have seen the application of functional
neuroimaging to market research and marketing science (what has come to be called „neuromarketing‟
(Lee et al., 2007)) and the application of neurobiology to gambling addiction (the so-called „dopamine
hypothesis‟ (Melis et al., 2005; Vrecko, 2008)).
The most recent development of relevance to our paper has seen the emerging branch of cognitive
neuroscience that brings together social psychology with neuroscience - social cognitive neuroscience
and its application to organizations (Senior & Butler, 2007). At its core is an understanding of the
relationship between the brain and social interaction, in this case to the study of human behaviour in,
and in response to, organizations what has been termed „organizational cognitive neuroscience‟
(Butler & Senior, 2007). Here the focus is on the neuroscience of social interactions at the social level
and the need to understand the motivational and other social factors that drive behaviour and
experience in the real organizational world rather than on organizational performance per se.
In this paper, we propose a new theory-informed and interdisciplinary approach to build on the use
of the brain as a metaphor/analogy for understanding the nature and performance of organizations,
incorporating long-standing and recent neuroanatomical principles underlying the structure and
function of the brain into organizational theory and research. Much of the impetus for this approach has
come from the fundamental insight that the anatomical arrangement of the brain shares many of the
same constraints and demands that are faced by contemporary organizations, including: costs and
efficiency (how much energy provision and blood flow are required?), space requirements (how much
space in the skull should the brain really have?) and return on investment (how much could be gained
by making the brain 5% larger and/or faster?).
Our goal in writing this paper is to highlight the significant interdisciplinary and collaborative
potential that exists for sharing insights and approaches between neuroanatomical research and research
on organizational performance. In our view, such a project what we term neuroorganizational
research like that of the development of „organizational cognitive neurosciencenoted above, lies
beyond the capacity of either neuroanatomists or organizational analysts to pursue independently since
the nature of the problems identified are beyond the scope of either discipline (Klein, 1990). Our hope
is that the neuroanatomical principles detailed below - purposefully simplified - will serve to highlight
and stimulate new collaborative research avenues for neuroanatomists and organizational researchers
alike. Whilst most of the organizational examples referred to relate to service organizations in the
transport industries (reflecting the research interests of the co-author), we envisage that
neuroanatomical principles could be of potential benefit for organizations of all types and sectors.
Moreover, the belief that organizations are individual living organisms that have to be best suited to
their local environment to survive and prosper is our fundamental working assumption (c.f. Morgan,
2006) one set of „rules‟ may work for one and not for another. Organizations are as individual as each
of us, just like our brains.
The rest of the paper is divided into five main sections. In each section we highlight a different
neuroanatomical concept or approach that may be of benefit for use in organizational research,
including research ideas and possible topics.
2 STRUCTURAL SUBDIVISIONS IN THE BRAIN AND IN ORGANIZATIONS
In this first section, we outline several existing structural (e.g. anatomical) similarities that link
brains and organizations and suggest simple ways in which the adoption of basic neuroanatomical
approaches could be used to better define and analyse the performance of organizations.
Many previous studies using the brain as a metaphor for organizational purposes have tended to
take a simplistic approach, viewing the brain as a single homogeneous machine, capable of processing
large amounts of information and undertaking many complex tasks simultaneously. However, detailed
neuroanatomical investigation of the brain reveals a rather different entity, characterised by discrete
structural units, interconnected via an astonishingly complex yet logical series of „cables‟. The human
brain is therefore subdivided into a number of distinct anatomical regions, each defined by their
appearance and/or main biological function(s). The main classical structural subdivisions of the brain
are shown in Figure 1 and include the cerebral hemispheres (including the cerebral cortex),
diencephalon, brainstem, and cerebellum (for a more in-depth overview of basic human neuroanatomy,
see Crossman & Neary, 2005).
The neuroanatomical approach to understanding the brain takes these structural building blocks as
its basis, from which more in-depth investigations can be undertaken to try and uncover its myriad of
functions. In a similar way, contemporary organizations can be viewed as a set of discrete entities or
David Gillingwater and Thomas H. Gillingwater
37
building blocks as they tend to have a series of distinct business units, often distinguishable on a
physical and/or functional basis (e.g. sales, R&D, production, head office).
Importantly, however, it is the information that comes from understanding the patterns of network
connectivity within and between distinct brain structures that has provided the real contemporary
insights into how brain structure influences function and therefore performance. Regions of grey matter
- shown in Figure 2 - are formed by collections of nerve cells (neurons), more often than not
performing a specific function or set of closely related functions. Some of the most notable grey matter
accumulations in the cerebral hemispheres include the primary motor cortex and primary
somatosensory cortex, involved with the initiation and regulation of muscle contraction and the
perception of general sensory stimuli (e.g. discriminative touch) respectively.
Figure 1: Gross anatomy of the human brain and its major constituent parts: A - Lateral
(external) view of the left side of a whole human brain annotated to indicate the location of major
anatomical subdivisions; B - Medial (internal) view of the right half of a human brain cut in
median sagittal section, highlighting other major anatomical subdivisions.
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Figure 2: Photograph of horizontal section taken through one half of a human brain. Note the
clear distinction between regions of grey matter and regions of white matter.
In the diencephalon, the major grey matter region is the thalamus, a roughly egg-shaped structure
sitting beneath each of the large cerebral hemispheres, playing a critical subconscious role in receiving
and distributing almost all sensory information coming in from throughout the body. In contrast, white
matter regions of the brain form a critical myriad of connections linking grey matter regions to one
another (Figure 2). A good organizational equivalence for the role of white matter in the brain, and its
relationship to grey matter, is that of internal communication - for example, connectivity between the
business units of a global organization using high-speed information and communications technology
(ICT). If an organization‟s offices in New York and London are thought of as being equivalent to two
distinct regions of grey matter in the brain, then the streaming of data via fibre optic cables and remote
satellite is equivalent to the white matter. White matter therefore provides the all-important
communication channels through which different functional units of the brain interact, facilitating rapid
(almost in „real time‟) and accurate transfer of information throughout the entire organ. As a result, the
importance of white matter integrity to overall brain function and performance cannot be
overemphasised: for example, the specific breakdown of brain regions involved in communication is
known to play an important role in debilitating conditions such as stroke and multiple sclerosis
(Ferguson et al., 1997; Dewar et al., 1999; Wishart et al., 2006).
The large-scale connections within the brain (white matter tracts) are readily identifiable on gross
brain dissections (see Figure 2) and have led to detailed structural maps of the brain (e.g. Wakana et al.,
2004). However, recent breakthroughs in neuroanatomical research have allowed researchers using
novel brain imaging techniques (Catani, 2006; Lichtman et al., 2008) - to begin to piece together more
subtle, yet no less influential, wiring‟ patterns of the brain. This neuroanatomical research has been
key to our contemporary understanding of the structure and function of the brain, as mapping refined
physical and functional neural circuits has allowed us to account for brain activity and observe how
alterations in discrete regions of the circuitry can lead to dysfunction of the brain.
That a similar structural arrangement can be found in organizations becomes more obvious when
examining how groups of individuals become ordered within an organization and the routes of
communication they use. Many organizational subdivisions are directly equivalent to grey matter
nuclei in the brain as they often contain large numbers of individuals (equivalent to neurons in the grey
matter), more often than not focused on performing a specific task or role. White matter equivalents
include the internet, email, telephone, meetings, video conferencing, etc. As with the brain, the
David Gillingwater and Thomas H. Gillingwater
39
integrity and efficiency of formal and informal intra-organizational communication links are known to
be similarly important for the successful function of high-performing organizations (Adams et al.,
1993; Lievens & Moenaert, 2000; Marshall et al., 2007). Thus, a mapping approach akin to „business
process mapping‟ (Kaplan & Norton, 2000), but based on neuroanatomical principles and employing
neuroanatomical terminology rather than process modelling methods like „Six Sigma‟, is likely to
provide a sounder basis from which to develop a coherent and relevant understanding of an
organization‟s structure and functions, as well as providing the opportunity to identify regions of
potential weakness or dysfunction in its connectivity and performance.
Whilst this approach may seem rather unproblematic, gaining the required information to build a
„grey and white matter wiring diagram‟ for an organization may not be so simple. For example, one of
the key concepts underlying connectivity within the brain is that of the segregated nature of
information coding, transmission and decoding (Ciborra, 2001a). Communication channels in the brain
are almost always divided into those with input functions (sensory pathways carrying information
about the internal and external environment towards the brain), modulating functions (short, local
networks allowing communication between adjacent regions of grey matter), or output functions
(motor pathways carrying effector information away from the brain and out into the body, leading to
contraction of muscles). These different modalities can be readily distinguished from one another in the
brain as a result of the selective use of different chemical signals (neurotransmitters) released by
distinct subpopulations of neurons. In the organizational context, such clarity is less readily observed,
although no less important. For example, individual business units require a clear understanding of the
location and nature of incoming information versus intra-unit communication channels and outgoing
communications. However, the contemporary world of rapid and integrated communications
technology and media (e.g. the internet, intranet, wire-less communication) makes deciphering the
source and relevance of information a time-consuming and sometimes overwhelming chore,
contributing to the phenomenon of „information overload‟ (Eppler & Mengis, 2004). Whilst it can be
argued that such clear subdivisions are rarely the norm in most organizations (Kaplan & Norton, 2000),
a good example of where this approach can be identified in organizational practice is provided by the
organization of air traffic control services (Smolensky & Stein, 1998) an intensely information-rich
and communications-critical operating environment, where there is an unambiguous, overriding and
universally agreed goal (the safe arrival of aircraft). Studies of such organizations and operating
environments may therefore provide a good starting point for future research investigating the potential
for incorporating neuroanatomical principles into the structure and function of high-performing
organizations.
3 ‘DOING’ INDIVIDUALS AND ‘SUPPORTING’ INDIVIDUALS
In this second section, we examine the way in which cellular neuroanatomy (investigating the
identity, relationships and function of individual cells within the brain) has provided novel insights into
the structure and strategy of the brain and outline potential organizational equivalences.
One of the key principles of cellular neuroanatomy is that the brain consists of two main
populations of cells: neurons and supporting cells (glial cells). The electrically excitable neurons are
the primary „doing‟ cells of the brain. Their cell bodies are resident in grey matter whilst their long thin
processes (axons) pass out into the white matter in order to establish contact with cells in other regions
of the nervous system. These axon processes end at specialised chemical communication points known
as „synapses‟, from where they pass on their information to the next cell in the network (known as the
post-synaptic cell). Glial cells, in contrast, assist neurons to improve their performance by providing
nourishment, shielding them from the immediate internal environment, and moderating their exposure
to potentially damaging chemicals and environments. They are present throughout the grey and white
matter, but in the white matter play an important role in ensheathing (myelinating) the axons of neurons
to increase the speed at which they conduct electrical impulses via saltatory conduction. Importantly,
this very clear delineation of cell type and function is set, and normally cannot be reversed after each
cell has undergone development and maturation. Thus, „doing‟ neurons are specialised precisely for
that function and do not have to worry about supporting any other individuals. „Supporting‟ glial cells
are the complete opposite, sustaining other cells wherever they can but without the requirement or
ability to directly generate or transmit any information.
The importance of delineating cells with a „doing‟ function from those with a „support‟ function
suggests that individuals within an organization (akin to cells within the brain) may also perform better
when equipped with the specialised skills and resources to perform one of these roles, rather than trying
to do both. There are numerous examples where individuals within organizations have attempted to
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take on both roles, leading to work over-load, a lack of specialisation, and the threat of failure. A
particularly apt example is provided by the iconic US low-fare, high-value airline JetBlue Airways and
its founder, chairman and CEO, David Neeleman. According to one seasoned industry observer
(Straus, 2009), the carrier‟s highly publicised operational and financial turbulence in early 2007 could
be attributed in no small part to Neeleman‟s attempts to both steer the airline‟s future development (in
his role as chairman) as well as maintain operational control (as CEO). Within the space of a few
months, JetBlue effectively restructured its entire operation. A JetBlue spokesperson told Straus that
"The big difference now is that David simply could not do both. He could not run the day-to-day and
also look three, five, 10 years out into the future. This change allows him to do that. … Dave [Barger's]
strength [as the newly appointed CEO] is running an airline. He knows what it takes to restore JetBlue's
operational integrity."
Despite the distinct identity and roles of neurons and glia in the brain, one of the most important
breakthroughs in cellular neuroanatomy research has been to highlight the requirement for a close
working relationship between the two cell types in order to achieve optimal performance (Sherman &
Brophy, 2005). Changes in the status and/or function of one cell type are almost always immediately
detected by the other. Breakdown of these mutual relationships results in altered function and anatomy
in the nervous system and is thought to be play an important role in several neurodegenerative
conditions, including motor neuron disease (Boillee et al., 2006; Nagai et al., 2007). From an
organizational perspective, this suggests that whilst individuals with „doing‟ or „supporting‟ functions
may benefit from being specialised towards one of these roles, they should never isolate themselves
from individuals in the same work team or organization that perform the converse role. Whilst it may
be tempting to view „doing‟ individuals as the most important in any organization, and therefore in
some way superior to „supporting‟ individuals, the cellular neuroanatomy of the brain suggests that
mutual respect and support between the two types of role is likely to be important for optimum
performance. It is therefore possible to envisage a neuroanatomical approach being beneficial to
understanding the identity and roles of an individual within an organization by coding them as
primarily a „doing‟ or a „supporting‟ individual. The awareness of this identity could then be used as a
tool for managing workload and the type of work for any given individual, and could also be used to
ensure good communication links between doing individuals and supporting individuals.
These neuroanatomical insights also lend support to the notion that, on the one hand, bureaucratic
command-and-control type structures are less than ideal and should be avoided wherever possible, with
small interdependent organizational units being preferred, and, on the other, recognizing that all
personnel should be integrated into the workings of the organization with a clearly defined role where
they are trusted, respected and inspired. Two organizations that it could be claimed currently integrate
the symbiotic „doing‟ and „supporting‟ functions in a highly transparent form are The Walt Disney
Company and IKEA. The lionization and reinvention of Disney and the „Disney approach‟ under the
stewardship of Michael D Eisner have been well documented (c.f., Disney Institute, 2001; Capodagli &
Jackson, 1999) but not uncritically (c.f., Bryman, 2004); and IKEA, the Scandinavian-based low cost-
high quality furniture retailer the largest in the world with a growing global presence - is beginning to
assume a similar iconic status (Kotler, 1999; Edvardsson and Enquist, 2002). Such high-performing
organizations may therefore provide good case study material for further investigations into existing
and potential future synergies between organizational and neuroanatomical theories and practice.
4 DEALING WITH INFORMATION OVERLOAD
In this third section, we highlight the main neuroanatomical approaches used by the brain in order
to overcome one of the major problems shared by brains and organizations alike: how to deal with
information overload. Receiving, integrating and highlighting important information collected from
both internal and external environments is undoubtedly one of the core functions of the brain.
Organizations face a similar complexity and wealth of information available to them, which is only
likely to increase over the coming years due to the expansions in, and demands of, ICT. And yet,
organizations that are successful are generally considered to be those that have a „bias for action‟
(Peters & Waterman, 1982): where communications are of the essence and they are best capable of
collecting, processing and responding to information from their internal and external environments
(Ciborra, 2001b). Organizations therefore face very similar problems to the brain, being required to
process important information rapidly, efficiently and effectively, whilst not losing sight of less
specific (albeit potentially no less important) changes occurring in their wider internal and external
environments. ICT provides the required speed of response in many organizations, but does not
guarantee its effectiveness (Eppler & Mengis, 2004). Any strategy that has the potential to improve the
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abilities to sense, predict and assimilate changes in an operating environment is therefore likely to be
advantageous.
The anatomical arrangement of the human nervous system (and here we are deliberately extending
beyond the boundaries of the brain to incorporate the spinal cord and peripheral nerves) provides two
distinct ways of dealing with this problem: reflex arcs that are capable of eliciting repeatable and rapid
responses to important stimuli (e.g. pain or excessive heat); and the ability to deal with information at a
conscious or subconscious level, allowing some functions to proceed with the minimum of input or
resources from more complex and resource-demanding conscious areas of the brain.
The presence of reflex arcs within the nervous system allows rapid, stereotyped responses to occur
following an important, narrowly-defined, non-strategic (i.e. not requiring any long-term planning)
sensory stimulus (e.g. rapid lifting of the foot in response to pain resulting from treading on a sharp
object). These responses occur locally within the spinal cord, facilitating a stereotyped response over a
much shorter timescale than if the sensory information had to travel up to higher „conscious‟ regions of
the brain, before being processed, assimilated and a decision arrived at as to how to proceed. The
presence of reflex arcs therefore bypasses the requirement to sift through large volumes of information
that are constantly coming in from all types of different sources in order to identify, process and
respond to a critical stimulus that would benefit from a rapid response. The reliance on integrated
management information systems in the contemporary organization provides the opportunity to
implement similar reflex arcs in the organizational context, allowing much more rapid responses to key
incoming stimuli without requiring „decisions‟ to be made prior to a response (c.f., Larsen &
Leinsdorff, 1998). However, the incorporation of neuroanatomical principles underlying the reflex arc
into such management information systems might improve their performance.
The cellular arrangements of the nervous system that permit a rapid and stereotyped reflex
response are based around the existence of discrete populations of individual neurons in the spinal cord
that are specifically tasked, positioned and connected to detect pre-defined „important‟ events coming
in from the periphery (e.g. pain) and which also have the „authority‟ to initiate a response (e.g.
movement of the limb away from the painful stimulus) without prior approval from higher centres in
the brain. Building such an arrangement into organizational structure and strategy, most likely by
incorporating this approach into pre-existing integrated management information systems, may
therefore confer similar reflex abilities.
In organizational terms the basis of such an approach may already exist - albeit without the clarity
provided by the neuroanatomical framework - corresponding to the practice of pushing responsibility
down the line, combining firm central direction with maximum individual autonomy (what has been
called „simultaneous loose-tight properties‟ (Peters & Waterman, 1982)), and reflected in the obsession
with delayering (i.e., removing intermediate levels of managerial responsibilities wherever possible).
This approach is currently the sine qua non of two of today‟s most successful business operations the
„production system model‟ of the Japanese car maker Toyota (Liker, 2004; Dahlgaard-Park &
Dahlgaard, 2007) and the „fast aircraft turnaround model‟ typified by the low-fare high-value US
carrier Southwest Airlines. The „Southwest model‟ (Flouris & Oswald, 2006), now replicated in part by
the majority of low-cost airlines around the world, is based not only on high asset utilisation (aircraft
operations) but more importantly on the development of high-performance relationships that
characterise the organization (Gittell, 2003). These characteristics suggest that the devolution of
decision making - in response to a specific and defined set of environmental stimuli - down to the level
of individual workers within an organization is a good way to improve rapid, efficient and effective
responses to key, stereotyped stimuli relevant to an individual organization (e.g. competitor price cuts,
supply chain problems, growth in customer demand).
For information and inputs that require more processing and integration than those which elicit a
simple reflex response, the brain resists information overload by channelling information accurately
into discrete anatomical regions operating at conscious or subconscious levels. The ability to channel
information into regions of the brain that do not normally require conscious control or awareness
allows many core survival functions required for life support to take place with a minimum of effort.
For example, subconscious regions of the brain such as the brainstem are constantly monitoring and
responding to changes in both internal (heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, etc.) and external
environments. Only when the magnitude of change in any of the monitored parameters broaches a
critical level does an „awareness‟ of the information reach an individual‟s consciousness. This
arrangement frees up conscious areas of the brain, such as the cerebral hemispheres, to undertake more
complex information assimilation, decision-making and planning activities. Interestingly, it is these
conscious areas of the human brain that have undergone massive evolutionary expansion, allowing the
development of our higher cortical functions (Kriegstein et al., 2006).
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From an organizational perspective, the potential benefits of subdividing information processing
and decision-making tasks into „conscious‟ and „subconscious‟ areas appear to be worthy of serious
further investigation. Examples of where this kind of approach has been shown to work effectively
include high-performing organizations like Toyota and Ikea that combine the attributes of a simple
structural form and a „lean‟ management style with firm central direction and maximum individual
autonomy (Stadler, 2007) but, in this case, with a focus not only on developing autonomy among
individuals but also on their internal entrepreneurship and innovation capabilities. This approach
highlights one potential way to allow such autonomy and individual innovation within an organization,
without a loss of control or focus: an obsession with the customer. Nowhere is this better illustrated
than in an industry-leading service-driven company like Southwest Airlines, structured on the basis of
high-performance relationships that are built on „relational coordination‟ (Gittell, 2003). For example,
Southwest‟s Customer Service Commitment states that: „We tell our Employees we are in the Customer
Service business we just happen to provide airline transportation‟ (SWA, 2009). Southwest‟s
remarkable success can be measured by the fact that they are the only airline ever to have recorded
year-on-year profitability since their inception in 1971 and to have achieved the best cumulative
consumer satisfaction record of any US airline. This has been achieved with low staff turnover rates,
more flexible work arrangements than competitors and a high level of unionization (Gittell, 2003;
Flouris & Oswald, 2006).
The use of a neuroanatomical approach may therefore be of benefit for assisting other
organizations to conceptualise and implement similar structures and practices. Here, core housekeeping
operations equivalent to „subconscious‟ functions should be able to progress with a minimum of
disruption and effort, without reliance on constant input from „higher‟ („conscious‟) centres of the
organization. Similarly, individuals and managers connected with strategy and planning would not
expend time and energy on „lower-level‟ issues, unless something went wrong and required
intervention. However, neuroanatomical research has highlighted that this approach separating the
„conscious‟ and „subconscious‟ areas of an organization - does not imply that basic „subconscious‟
business processes should not be carefully monitored and remain within the conscious psyche of the
organization as a whole. Quite the opposite, as failure of „subconscious‟ business processes often
means failure of the organization. Rather, subconscious‟ business processes should be allowed to
proceed without repeated interventions that rarely add significant value to the organization as a whole.
One likely consequence of adopting such an approach for an organization would be problems with
directing relevant information towards conscious or subconscious centres. Once again, however, the
brain has already developed a means to deal with this problem that could readily be transferred to the
organizational context. The thalamus (the grey matter region located in the diencephalon - Figure 1),
sitting beneath each of the large cerebral hemispheres, plays a critical subconscious role in receiving
and distributing almost all sensory information coming in from throughout the body (Schmahmann,
2003). One useful analogy is to compare the thalamus to a central postal sorting office, where all mail
consignments (sensory information) have to be brought before being sorted by address and sent out to
their correct final destination. Information coming in from the body is therefore not communicated to
the conscious cortex in a haphazard, randomly organized way, thereby reducing information
asymmetry and mis-information. The presence of a similar central (but not necessarily centralised)
information receiving/distributing centre could be provided to an organization by modifying and
enhancing existing ICT infrastructures (see above; Monteiro & Hepso, 2001) or customer relationship
management models (CRM) (Wilson et al., 2002), as they are often already established to collate and
distribute important internal and external information (e.g. competitors‟ prices, internal supply chains,
direct and indirect costs).
The ability to separate „conscious‟ and „subconscious‟ areas is also critical for undertaking the
exceptional long-term planning and strategic thinking functions associated with the human brain. As a
result of these attributes, the human brain has the ability not only to monitor and respond to the
environment, but also to „second guess‟ it, allowing plans to be made to influence internal and external
environments rather than simply being forced to respond to changes in them. This ability is one that is
highly sought after by organizations, forming the basis of much strategic planning and re-organization.
Its locus is to be found in the twin themes of organizational leadership (especially the powers of
visionary and transforming leadership (Bryman, 1992)) and organizational culture (in particular the
ability to foster and engender creativity and innovation in the implementation of strategy). The
adoption of a neuroanatomical approach to „conscious‟ and „subconscious‟ functions may therefore go
some way towards conferring this ability. In particular, executive decision-making and planning
processes in the human brain take place in regions of the cerebral hemispheres distinct from other areas
responsible for conscious awareness of the environment (e.g. primary sensory cortex) and executing
decisions (e.g. primary motor cortex), suggesting that the physical and intellectual separation of these
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functions from the more mundane day-to-day tasks of running an organization would be beneficial.
This approach is perhaps another instance where the high-performance relationships that underpin
Southwest Airlines’ leadership, culture and strategy (Gittell, 2003) contribute to its unique competitive
advantage (Flouris & Oswald, 2006).
5 IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL EXPOSURE DURING DEVELOPMENT
In this fourth section, we examine how insights gained from studying the development of the brain
might be useful for our understanding of the birth, growth and development of organizations. In
particular, we discuss the importance of environmental exposure during the early stages of an
organization‟s life-cycle: creation and growth. The developmental processes that the brain goes through
to reach its final adult state are, just like organizations, highly complex and critical for the successful
establishment of a fully-functioning organ. The importance of these early stages of development should
not be overlooked, especially when they are known to play a significant role in determining the
eventual „mature‟ state and performance of both brains and organizations (Hensch, 2005; Wolpaw,
2006; Van de Ven, 1980; Quinn & Cameron, 1983).
The gross anatomy of the brain is established early on in pre-natal development, much as the plans
and blue-print‟ for the general structure and strategy of a new organization (or new business unit
within an existing organization) are often established well before the organization becomes a physical
entity (Quinn & Cameron, 1983). However, the fine network of internal circuitry within the brain is
only refined into its experienced, fully-functioning state by a process of gradual sculpting and re-wiring
that occurs during critical periods of development after birth. During these periods, excessive and
incorrect connections and pathways are pruned away as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Schematic diagram representing the normal process of postnatal pruning of
connections that occurs throughout the human nervous system shortly after birth.
The removal of excess and/or incorrect connections, critical for establishing the fully-functional
mature nervous system, is driven by a variety of genetic and epigenetic factors such as their relative
levels of activity, the presence or absence of competing inputs for the same role, relationships of
neuronal cells to their surrounding glial cells, and/or suitability for a specific function (Wyatt & Balice-
Gordon, 2003; Low & Cheng, 2006; Freeman, 2006). As a result, the brain is prepared for its future
tasks and challenges by moulding itself in response to the external and internal environments it
becomes exposed to during the first weeks and months of its life.
The importance of environmental exposure is perhaps best illustrated by the effects of visual
disturbances on the development of the primary visual cortex (the region responsible for conscious
processing and awareness of visual information). It is well established that visual acuity in humans
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develops substantially (improving roughly fivefold) over the first few months following birth, before
fine-tuning the system over the ensuing six years (Maurer & Lewis, 2001). However, if the visual
system is perturbed during this critical developmental period (e.g. by congenital blindness or cataracts)
then the primary visual cortex fails to re-organise and arrange itself normally, and in some cases can
even be taken over by sensory inputs coming from other modalities such as touch or sound (Maurer et
al., 2005). As the individual matures, the ability of the brain to undertake remodelling and
reorganization on such a large scale declines. Thus, the majority of experience-dependent learning
needs to be undertaken, with accompanying resource allocation, during the early periods of an
individual‟s life, as it cannot be adequately compensated for at a later date.
An understanding of the critical periods present during the successful growth and development of
the brain, alongside an appreciation of the consequences of failure to provide environmental exposure
during these periods, has potentially important insights for organizational development. Although many
different models of the organizational life cycle (OLC) have been proposed (e.g. Lippitt & Schmidt,
1967; Miller & Friesen, 1980; Greiner, 1998), many share the concepts of organizational creation/birth
and growth preceding maturity (Lester, 2004). Similarly, many models imply that a failure to undergo
developmental processes required to establish a mature organization with a good environmental fit and
the capacity to respond to important sensory stimuli results in the high numbers of companies that fail
to last beyond 12 to 18 months from the time of their creation (Quinn & Cameron, 1983).
Of particular note, the high levels of resources available to the developing brain after birth (e.g.
energy, number of contributing cells) have been found to be of critical importance, allowing the initial
(pre-natal) over-elaboration of contacts and functions before subsequent post-natal sculpting occurs.
Translation of these insights to the organizational perspective suggests that resource allocation during
creation and early growth phases of the OLC is likely to be critical to success (Buenstorf & Witt,
2006). Thus, an organization looking to take advantage of neuroanatomical principles would require
the ability to commit significant resourcing to ensure that, at its conception, it has more resources than
may eventually be required. This is especially the case for „softer‟ resources like management
experience and commitment, time and creative space, as well as the more conventional resources of
superior market intelligence, appropriate personnel, innovative products and services, efficient outputs
and effective networks of inter-organizational connections (Lester, 2004). These facilitate the all-
important freedoms to subsequently undergo „developmental remodelling‟ in response to both internal
and external environmental pressures and opportunities that are unlikely to be fully anticipated or
predicted before launch. In this way, an organization has the potential to be more successful in its
growth and early maturity phases because it has allowed itself to be shaped by the real pressures of the
turbulent business world it inhabits, rather than trying to „shoe-horn‟ a „one trick pony‟ or „one size fits
all‟ offering into a predetermined fixed structure, planned before creation, into a business environment
where it does not ideally fit.
An illustration of the potential effectiveness of this approach to „developmental remodelling‟ is
provided by the evolution of JetBlue Airways and its „value-based model‟ (Flouris & Oswald, 2006;
Fiorini, 2002). Neeleman, JetBlue‟s founder, having already experienced the trials and tribulations of
starting a new airline Morris Air Service which was subsequently sold to Southwest, was then
employed by Southwest during which the idea of JetBlue was born. The four factors which appeared
crucial were: the prior experience gained when creating a minor airline; the valuable learning gained
whilst at Southwest; the ability to attract and adapt mature airline talent to a new corporate concept
prior to start-up; and finally, perhaps most crucially, the reflective evaluation of the reasons behind the
failed growth strategy of the path-breaking low-cost US carrier PEOPLExpress (Wynbrandt, 2004;
Peterson & Glab, 1995) and a recognition of the resourcing requirements necessary for creating a
value-based service: innovation (in the sense of „doing things differently‟ to competitors), flexibility,
speed of response and a sense of intimacy with employees and customers alike.
An apposite organizational illustration of the sort of „developmental remodelling‟ t