The rise of organisations

Tribes and cities

We can be fairly confident, from the way that primates organise themselves, that the oldest form of group structure is the tribe.

Banding together in tribes makes a lot of sense from the point of view of both genes and memes. Because the tribe consists of interlinked families, collective child rearing and group foraging increases the chances of genetic survival and propagates memes which benefit the tribe.

Tribal organisations are simple and efficient to manage, with a clear hierarchy, well-understood roles, and typically few barriers to internal communication.

And they have not gone away: we see tribe-like organisation structures everywhere in modern business, although the element of consanguinity has usually been lost. We see them in communes, the co-operatives, the kibbutz, in start-ups, and in family businesses.

Tribal structures are ideal for researchers, software shops, creative agencies, charities and any organisation where mutual support is beneficial and size is not an advantage.

That point on size is key, because our genes place a limit on the size of the tribe and thus the size of the tribe-like organisation. Dunbar (1993) examined the tribal structures of several types of primates and compared it to the size of their neocortexes. From this, he demonstrated that primates with larger brains can sustain larger networks, and deduced that the mean group size of human tribes should be roughly 150, give or take 50.

Dunbar demonstrated that this level of 150 roughly matched the peak size for prehistoric groups. This notion lives on today in the Hutterites, who live communally in groups of 60-150: when the population of the group nears the upper limit, the colony is divided along family lines.

Not surprisingly, this limit on human association is now known as Dunbar's Number. It's starting to appear widely in business literature, often charmingly described as the "monkeysphere".

Of course, once we started to encounter other tribes or live in towns, we bumped into memes we had not met before, and we didn't know what their carriers prized or what would drive them to violence. The solution we came up with was to develop a set of behavioural rules for interactions with strangers, rules that were spread from person to person and from parents to children.

Different sets of rules were established in different parts of the world. At the trivial level, there are different rules of etiquette (do we salute, kiss, rub noses, shake hands, or bow?), but there are also much deeper structures concerning the role of the individual within a group, how power is obtained and what individuals can do with it, how roles differ by gender, how much diversity is tolerated and so on (see the section on culture in Social Structures for more information on this).

Sumerian Cookery

I want to take a short diversion to examine an early (and extremely striking) example of memes at work in building organisations.

Sumer, located in what is now southern Iraq, was the first civilisation that we know of to develop intensive agriculture using technology such as irrigation, the plough and the wheel. They also developed writing and a cumbersome form of arithmetic, and they did all this six thousand years ago.

What is interesting for us is that the Sumerian religion describes how the gods gathered knowledge into almost 100 divine decrees, each called a ‘me’. A me was a god-given ‘how to’ guide describing a topic - how to bake bread, for example. If you wanted to know how to bake a good loaf, you went to your priest and he would read you the me. By the way, the closeness of ‘me’ to the word ‘meme’ is startling but coincidental.

A me can be seen as a description of a concept, activity or role, along with instructions for carrying it out. Concept me included being a hero, truth, falsehood, enmity, libel, the law, being an elder, power, honesty, joy, sorrow, and wisdom while activities included war, making music, the destruction of cities, writing, sexual intercourse, religious purification, weariness, peace, and judgement. The me that described roles included instructions on how to be a king, priest, eunuch, shepherd, builder, scribe, prostitute, metalsmith, leatherworker, or basketweaver.

You could argue that the me were just everyday knowledge packaged into convenient form and held by the priest class as a way of maintaining their dominance. Another way of looking at it is that the priest class was created by the memes as a way of disseminating themselves and protecting their own copy fidelity. Whichever explanation you prefer, the Sumerians were the regional superpower of their day, and their society lasted for nearly fifteen hundred years.

Of course, the me live on today in schools, recipe books and process manuals.

Guilds - protecting knowledge

From the memes' point of view, tribes (and tribe-like organisations) provide a fertile but small breeding ground. But there is an upper limit to the meme's spread because our brains are too small to remember everyone we meet. The memes needed to find a way to spread beyond the limits of the monkeysphere. The next organisation structure to arise was the trade guild. We have examples of guilds in Rome, ancient India and the early Islamic world, but they really came to dominate the commercial landscape in medieval Europe.

Unlike a tribal structure, trade guilds have no common vision or purpose, but exist to protect the mutual interests of people of the same trade or pursuit. Guilds help their members by codifying and protecting knowledge, by educating members and actively excluding non-members, by building customer loyalty through a code of ethics or standards, and often by pooling utilisation to get members through hard times. Access to knowledge was controlled by master craftsmen, and after a period of apprenticeship to a master, a 'journeyman' was encouraged to travel to learn from others before seeking master status himself. The same structure is also found in social guilds such as the Masons, and Freemasonry can be seen as a set of nested memeplexes that members encounter as they 'journey' through the organisation.

From the memes' point of view, guilds are a wonderful structure. They provide a source of new minds to infect in the form of apprentices, the journeyman structure ensures that the memeplex self-corrects and that improvements are spread, and the masters ensure copy fidelity. Strict membership rules and initiation rituals act to increase compliance and fight off rival memes.

Trade guilds were largely swept away in the economic revolution of the late 18th Century, but some still survive: many professional services organisations are still structured in his way. Law firms, accountancies and management consultancies all retain the old ideas of apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen (although they often use terms like 'manager' and 'partner') and some guilds (accountants, lawyers, doctors etc) retain their historic legal protection. Guilds continue to exist because knowledge codification and utilisation pooling remain good sense, and because the customers need the reassurance of quality and ethical behaviour that the guild brings (e.g. the 'chartered' status). Of course, protectionism and strong regulation isn't all good news for the customer, as guilds are famously good at standardising prices for their own benefit and are famously bad at creating new ideas that might change existing practices.

As an aside, one might wonder why social guilds such as Freemasonry and college fraternities have developed initiation rituals at all, when it limits and possibly deters new members. Well, they act as a way of ensuring that the new members really want to accept the memes and, as Brodie (1996) explained, the ritual embeds the memes more thoroughly: in his words, "people end up believing they have received something valuable, something deserving of their loyalty‚ when in reality all that has happened is that the people who were torturing them stopped."

The joint stock company

Guilds are great at perpetuating a consistent set of memes, but it was evident that their dominance would be ended in the 19th Century by the rise of industrial capitalism.

Where, then, could the memes find a home that was broad in scope, long lasting, and capable of considerable growth? They found such a home in today’s dominant form of commercial organisation, the joint stock company.

Like guilds, these existed in ancient times, but the most prominent early examples were colonial ventures such as the Dutch and British East India Companies, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Nowadays, almost all nations have an equivalent form that in turn makes up almost all of their economies. Why did this structure thrive?

From our human point of view, ownership of stock has potentially large benefits while the risk of failure is generally limited to the value of the investment.

From the memes’ point of view, the company is an ‘artificial person’ with legal protection and considerable powers: it can raise capital, trade, earn money, hire servants, print publications and do any number of things in its own right. By putting in place business units, geographical models, reporting frameworks et al, corporations can grow potentially without limit. Of course, this means that corporations are good vehicle for memes to travel in, because their spread is potentially unchecked.

In fact, I believe that the size of the modern corporation is only limited by the efficiency with which information flows through them (see Camrass and Farncombe (2004)). The separation of the owners of the corporation from those who work for it has had a number of interesting consequences.

It led to the rise of the modern class structure and any number of political memeplexes (such as Marxism), and it also led to the creation of a management cadre that could carry good ideas about how corporations should be managed from one to another.

It also leads me to believe that there are
two sets of memes at work in modern companies - those which represent the purpose of the company, as set out by its original creators and owners, and those which represent the mechanisms by which the company works.

Tribes to Ltd. Co.