The governance of corporations as holobionts

If we take up the biological metaphors from the 2nd blog, we can approach a corporation as being like a holobiont.  This enables us to include its constituent business units, subcontractors and outsourced services as symbionts without denying those symbionts different roles in other contexts. This in turn enables us to define an ecosystem in terms of the interactions between holobionts understood as being operationally and managerially independent corporations.  This reserves the definition of a superorganism as a social organization of holobionts, which we will consider in the last blog in terms of their social forms of governing mentality (governmentality).  This leaves the governance of a corporation qua holobiont as reflecting the way that corporation exhibits agency in pursuit of one of the four types of behavioral strategy identified in the 3rd blog (archaea, bacteria, protobiota[1] and eukaryota), each with its associated form of strategy ceiling.

“… the ‘fundamental’ life types are the parsimonious realizations or prototypes of autopoietic systems … There are four primary types with constructive subtypes that lead to M-R closure by combining into hybrid forms. Clearly, all complex evolved life forms are hybrids of the fundamental types, just as hybrids of incomplete forms may explain the origin of the fundamental types: how organismic life evolved from proto-life. … (Kineman 2018)

The three views of a holobiont

We start from the understanding established in the 4th blog that the behaviors of a corporation qua holobiont necessarily involve three partial views of it as a living system:

Figure 1: The three partial views of a living system’s behavior.

  • How its identity is defined – the internalist view (the relation to what the environment ‘wants’) established by holding the relational ‘cut’ constant. This captures the self-organizing circular causality of the living system through which its identity is defined on the basis of its particular way of relating to its environment. For the corporation, it reflects a form of cultural immune system[2] defining a structure of affiliation for the individuals working for the corporation that shapes what they do in its name[3].
  • What it can do for its environment – the externalist view (the value propositions offered by the corporation) established by holding the ontic ‘cut’ constant. This shows the dependency of the corporation’s efficient-cause Operations (its ‘who/m’) on its material-cause Capabilities (its ‘what’) constrained by its final-cause Strategy (its ‘why’) and its formal-cause Organization (its ‘how’).[4] Figure 2 describes this in terms of the different kinds of value proposition made available to a corporation’s customer depending on what kind of competitive strategy it is pursuing. The ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘who/m’ and ‘why’ are a shorthand for the four causes introduced in the previous blog, and the zig-zag path in Figure 2 indicates the stratification described by the architectural view.

Figure 2: The externalist view describing different forms of value proposition.

A corporation’s vertical axis of accountability relates its chosen value propositions (‘North’) to its underlying repertoire of capabilities (‘South’). This axis has to be balanced with its horizontal axis of accountability relating the know-how that can make effective use of those underlying capabilities (‘West’) to the particular contexts-of-use of customers within which the corporation seeks to create value by engendering direct and indirect effects (‘East’).[5]

  • How it interacts with its environment – the architectural view (the stratified relation of the corporation’s capabilities related to ultimate demands) established by holding the epistemic ‘cut’ constant. This shows the dependency of the corporation’s formal-cause Organization (its ‘how’) on its final-cause Strategy (its ‘why’), constrained by its efficient-cause Operations (its ‘who/m’) and its material-cause Capabilities (its ‘what’).[6] This is shown in Figure 3 through the way underlying ‘what’ capabilities are shaped by the ‘how’ of the way corporations make them available, by the way these products and services are aligned, orchestrated and made to cohere through the ‘who/m’ of corporations’ operations, and ultimately by the ‘why’ of the way customers value the direct and indirect effects of supply-side behaviors within their contexts-of-use. The stratification arises from the way each step up through the layers holds one of the three asymmetries in a particular way, the result describing the way the ecosystem of corporations supports customers’ contexts-of-use:
    • 1st asymmetry: the underlying technology does not define the corporation’s product/service.
    • 2nd asymmetry: the corporation’s know-how does not define the solutions it offers its customers.
    • 3rd asymmetry: the customer’s demand does not define what the customer wants to experience.

Figure 3: The architectural view of stratification relating underlying technologies to ultimate demands.

The governance of a holobiont is thus described by these three partial views: of its self-organization, of the value propositions it offers, and of its place within a stratification of an ecosystem of corporations supporting those ecosystems’ ultimate customers’ contexts-of-use. A further step is needed, however, to relate these views to the different kinds of behavioral strategy identified in Figure 4 of the 3rd blog.

Adapting Rosen’s Metabolism-Repair system to describe four types of strategy

Rosen used to refer to a living system with its particular relation to its environment and its three processes of replication, metabolism and repair (Rosen 1991: p251), processes that in a holobiont not only become structurally coupled to its environment but also to the lives of its symbionts:

  • Replication as its genotypic way of relating to the environment,
  • Metabolism as its creation of realized organization (realized negentropy) of its constituents[7], and
  • Repair as its maintaining of a phenotypic way of organizing metabolism in its environment.

We apply these concepts of selection, replication, metabolism and repair to a corporation-as-holobiont, extending this use of to include the particular structure of affiliation the corporation offers to those who work for it. The resultant four kinds of efficient-cause ‘who/m’ behavioral strategy, paralleling those described in the 3rd blog, each provide a distinct behavioral basis for a structure of affiliation. At the same time this behavioral strategy offers a distinct ‘why’ final-cause way of being valued by its environment through the way it is structurally coupled to that environment. These four ways of being valued define four kinds of value proposition:

  • r-type replication, based on ‘what’ is done, replicating a selected way of being useful.
  • c-type customization, based on ‘how’ things are done, providing a context-specific embedding of a particular way of organizing metabolism.
  • K-type know-how, based on ‘who’ the system is being ‘for-whom’, replicating metabolic know-how in context-specific ways. Because of the dependence of this strategy on its host environment, there are two forms of this kind of behavioral strategy, depending on whether the relation to the host is symbiotic or not, i.e., on whether the behaviors are open to the dynamics of the host-as-context (‘who-for-whom’), or closed to them (‘who’ but no ‘for-whom’).
  • P-type problem-solving, based on the ‘why’ of that about the system that is wanting to be selected through its ability to engender selected effects on ‘problems’ (or ‘pains’) arising in particular contexts-of-use within its environment.

The different relations to the four causes of each way of being valued by the environment are summarized in Table 1 along with a characterization of their different bases of affiliation:

Table 1: The four different externalist strategies for being valued, each with its own basis for affiliation[8].

Each behavioral strategy can also be characterized in terms of where they are placed in a stratification. Table 2 adds some examples from the machine tool and health care ‘industries’ for illustration purposes:

Table 2: The four different strategies placed within the context of an architectural stratification

The stratified relationships between the four strategies

While each of these four kinds of strategy correspond to fundamental types of living system, a holobiont will be able to self-organize in such a way that it could adopt any one of these, even while being structurally coupled with other environments, symbionts or hosts in pursuit of its interests. Figure 4 shows all four types alongside each other, the color codes indicating which cause is being served by each layer. The supply-side is represented by the colored layers, the demand-side is represented by the dotted-line layers.  Thus,

  • In the r-type case, the ‘replication of a selected way of being useful’ is being used by the customer, the remining layers being undertaken on the demand-side by the customer.
  • In the c-type case, it is the ‘context-specific embedding of a particular way of organizing metabolism’ that is being used by the customer.
  • In the K-type case, the two variants reflect the different ways in which metabolic know-how is replicated within the customer’s context-of-use.
  • In the P-type case the provider is selected because of the way it is able to innovate effects within the customer’s context-of-use.

The supply-side affiliation in each case remains subject to the interests of the provider, so that even in the P-type case, there is a remaining gap between what is done for the customer and the customer’s experience of a remaining value deficit.

Figure 4: The stratification of the different types of behavioral strategy, each with its affiliative structure

It remains for the customers to organize how they ‘use’ these value propositions. While the propositions describe different ways of organizing the means of production, the customers may be either other corporations or the ultimate end-user citizens whose means of consumption are organized not around profit but around well-being.[9]

And so to strategy ceilings

It follows that only in the P-type proposition and the open form of the K-type proposition must the provider be structurally coupled to the dynamics of the customer’s context-of-use. This requires governance to be East-West dominant, i.e., allowing the dynamic relation to the customer’s context-of-use ‘lead’.  It is this need for East-West dominance that requires some degree of surrendered sovereignty. In all the other types of proposition, the affiliation is to a supply-side definition of what is to be provided that is independent of the individual customer’ situation, i.e., able to be defined in terms of a market.
Viewing each of the different types of value proposition in terms of the architectural stratification view in Figure 3, the governance of a r-type proposition need only be explicit about the ‘what’ of the corporation to its employees. In the case of a c-type proposition, this extends to being explicit about both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, for the K-type proposition it is the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who/m’, and for the P-type proposition it is all four causes. The strategy ceiling, then, refers to the strata that can remain implicit in the governance of a value proposition. Where the governance of a corporation is based on authority external to it, the response to an employee questioning these implicit strata can thus be ‘it’s none of your business’. The strategy ceiling, therefore, is a way of characterizing what has to become explicit for any given type of value proposition.[10]

In conclusion

Holobionts offering value propositions can themselves be symbionts of a more complex corporation. There may thus be r-type propositions within a corporation offering a c-type proposition, and both r-type and c-type propositions may be symbionts within a corporation offering a K-type proposition.  Particular challenges arise for a corporation offering a P-type proposition, however, as for example in the case of providing intensive social care to individuals within a social care provider (Boxer 2017) or providing through-life capabilities for a fielded military within a weapons manufacturer (Whittall and Boxer 2009).  These challenges arise from the tension that has to be managed between the horizontally-dominant governance of the P-type and/or open K-type propositions and the vertically-dominant governance of the other kinds of proposition within the supporting ecosystem (Boxer 2007).

The social organization of the supersystem becomes increasingly challenging, therefore, when all four forms of proposition have to be balanced in relation to their ultimate customers, for example where the effects of digitalization are leading to more and more of the economy being driven from the Q-sectors.[11]  This raises the question of what changes this introduces into the governing mentality needed by such a supersystem, for example as in the changing nature of a nation state’s concerns for its citizens. This will be the focus of the last blog in this series.


[1] “This quasi-organic form is a ‘self-selection strategist’ that includes various semi-organismic life forms such as viruses, internal organs, and various ecosystemic or symbiotic relations. … We can label it Protobiota in agreement with a previous taxonomic proposal for prototypical life (Hsen-Hsu 1965).” (Kineman 2018)
[2] It is important to consider the libidinal investment that individuals make in the behaviors expected of them by their roles, behaviors that support their identifications, for example in how an individual holds the tension between normative and ‘edge’ understandings of their role as per the previous blog. These identifications lock in particular patterns of relation between individuals that act systemically like a cultural immune system constraining what forms of change can be tolerated by the corporation.  Elaborating on what ‘cultural immune system’ means is beyond the scope of this blog, requiring us to go into a Lacanian understanding of the nature of discourses (Boxer and Kenny 1990). Understanding the dynamics of this immune system as a libidinal economy of discourses (Boxer and Kenny 1992) becomes necessary if the forms of counter-resistance to genotypic adaptation are to be overcome (Boxer 2021, 2014a, 2004). For the purposes of this blog, the metaphor of biological immune systems as per (Schneider 2021) and (Rosen 1974) will be used, as for example in (Hagel III 2017).
[3] ‘Affiliation’ is used here to refer to the ways in which individuals’ obedience is bound to a corporation’s ‘way of doing things’.  It describes how an individual holds the second dilemma of espoused theory versus the unthought known (Boxer 1999).
[4] The relations between the four causes in each of the three views follow the directions of the arrows in Figure 5 of the 4th blog.
[5] Using the cardinal points of the compass overlaid on the diagonals of Figure 2 convey the different axes of governance that need to be balanced in ways that reflect different ways of competing. Amongst these it is important to distinguish the vertically-dominant from the horizontally-dominant forms of governance (Boxer 2014b).
[6] This stratification places the corporation’s particular behaviors within the context of the larger ecosystems in which it is competing, relating them to the ultimate contexts-of-use that are being supported by those ecosystems (Boxer 2012; Boxer et al. 2008). This stratification describes the relationships between supply-side and demand-side use-values, see ‘How does 21st century capitalism differ from 20th century capitalism?’.
[7] ‘Realized’ is used here to emphasize that what is created is an embodied form, not simply a more complex design for realization. See (Moreno-Bergareche and Ruia-Mirazo 1999)
[8] Quotes from (Kineman 2018)
[9] For the significance of this distinction between producers, consumers and citizens, see ‘How does 21st century capitalism differ from 20th century capitalism’.
[10] Whether or not the determining of the strategy ceiling is experienced as external to the corporation depends on the way those working for the corporation are affiliated to it, reflected in the way their identifications are invested in its behaviors.  The sponsoring system of a corporation is characterized by the assumptions that remain implicit above the ceiling, forming a governing mentality framing the way its members exercise authority.
[11] These are the fourth and fifth sectors of the national economy in which corporations’ behaviors are driven by the needs of individual customers’ contexts-of-use. See ‘The dialectics implied by the Q-sectors’.


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———. 2004. ‘Facing Facts: what is the good of change?’, Journal of Psycho-Social Studies, 3(1): 20-46.
———. 2007. “The Double Challenge in Engineering Complex Systems of Systems.” In AsymmetricDesign.
———. 2012. The Architecture of Agility: Modeling the relation to Indirect Value within Ecosystems (Lambert Academic Publishing: Saarbrücken, Germany).
———. 2014a. ‘Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness.’ in D. Armstrong and M. Rustin (eds.), Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm (Karnac: London).
———. 2014b. ‘Leading Organisations Without Boundaries: ‘Quantum’ Organisation and the Work of Making Meaning’, Organizational and Social Dynamics, 14: 130-53.
———. 2017. ‘Caring Beyond Reason: A question of ethics’, Socioanalysis, 19: 34-50.
———. 2021. “Working Beyond The Pale: when doesn’t it become an insurgency?” In ISPSO Annual Conference. Berlin.
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———. 1992. ‘Lacan and Maturana: Constructivist Origins for a 3rd order Cybernetics’, Communication and Cognition, 25: 73-100.
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———. 1991. Life Itself (Columbia University Press: New York).
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