The nature of organisational immune systems

You will recall from our discussion of religions that they have survived for millennia by having an exceptionally strong immune system, usually wrapped in terms like faith and heresy that protect the contents of the holy book.  This immune system fights off mutations that might affect copy fidelity by making the adherents reject false ideas (‘false’ in the context of a religion meaning 'does not accord with that which I hold to be true' rather than 'provably incorrect').  The immune system thus prevent their hosts (that’s you and me, folks) from letting in any dangerous ideas that might cause us to defect from the memeplex.

Financial and political systems also have holy books, although we might use terms like ‘penal code’, ‘generally agreed accounting practices’, or ‘constitution’ to describe them.  They also have various forms of immune system up to and including the legal system.

So it really should come as no surprise that organisations have immune systems too.  If you don’t believe me, try proposing something really radical in a meeting and see how many people line up to stomp on you. 

Read more: The nature of organisational immune systems

Why the immune system is a blessing

Quite simply, the main reason to praise a strong memetic immune system is because it stops you doing stupid things.  We may be told to ‘believe a man can fly’ every time we watch a Superman movie, but our immune system tells us that this is most improbable, and neatly quarantines the meme as ‘fantasy’. It is entirely likely that people have occasionally believed they really could fly, but this meme would fail to spread in all but the messiest of fashions.

Organisations have internal controls to ensure that new ideas are properly evaluated, both to balance risks and potential benefits, but also for reasons of ‘fitness’ to the corporation’s beliefs and vision.  These controls – in a well-run organisation - will prevent ideas from taking root that do not support the objectives of the organisation.  So ‘the way we do things round here’ avoids meme clashes and prevents the rise of internal tensions, at least in principle.

Read more: Why the immune system is a blessing

Why the immune system is a curse

A memetic immune systems preserves the organisation by preventing change.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, but mostly it’s not.  Strong immune systems stifle innovation and prevent organisations from reacting to external threats such as new technologies, new competitors or changes in the economy.  They also prevent beneficial change.

Read more: Why the immune system is a curse