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I just spent three days in San Francisco working with the Chaordic Alliance helping leaders create new organizational forms that work and play at the intersection of chaos and order. That sense of chaord* lives between the lines of the pages in this “Human Capital” issue as we search for the right degree of order so that the concepts of community and society can survive. Where is the balance between the chaos of each person doing precisely what they want to do and of everyone doing enough of what others need them to do?

We have been seeing the world through a divide and conquer lens that focus only on how things differ since the days of René Descartes. Likewise, our preoccupation with cause and effect has led to an input-process-output model analogous to a digestive system. But an increasingly complex society requires we attend not to the differences, but to the mutuality of things. When good people use a digestive system approach to this challenge, many of us feel more like the effluent than the enthused.

I think we need, instead, a generative metaphor. We need to create organizational models that work more like our reproductive systems that don’t simply reproduce—in the copy or cloning sense—but form and birth something new that can, in turn, form and deliver something more. Jack Ring recently reminded me that an oak tree provides shade, home, and work for all sorts of ecosystems, but primarily spawns acorns. Inside every acorn is not a tiny little oak tree, but rather the ability to become an oak tree if given the appropriate environment and nourishment.

Humans are capital not in the sense that they exist, like a five-axis machine sitting on a factory floor, but in the sense that they can transform information and energy into forms more useful for their constituencies. I’ve learned that for organization to thrive, they need to figure out models, technologies, and systems that generate new life; entire ecologies where people can educe new means that honor the whole self in the board room as much as in the lunch room and generate at least enthusiasm if not joy for all.

While I still consider the term Human Capital as much an oxymoron as Knowledge Management, loud silence, and jumbo shrimp, I’ve seen it serve as a poultice for those who love it and those quite unamused—by encouraging us to focus on the other side of the mirror. Focus on the people in the matrix, not just the structure of the matrix. Although economists might remind us that the term Human Capital is better than the term it replaced—Labor Costs—we still have far to go. We hope with this issue we help take you further down that path.

To help us do that, Thomas O. Davenport challenges the metaphor of Human Capital, Michael Dertouzos offers insights into what it means to be human-centered, Brook Manville and I offer our best road signs on our path to something new, Mary Catherine Bateson and Verne Harnish ask us to look at how learning is key to transformation, Gary Becker explains how the term sprang to life, and A. Human Asset explains just how that feels.

Let’s never forget that lip service happens when people are forced to use analogies inappropriate for their purpose. It’s only the opening to a system that ends where something else occurs. Time to start forming organizations that birth something new. Time to start really thinking and to remember William James’ admonition; “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Warm regards, chaords.

Marcia Conner

 * Chaord and its adjective partner, Chaordic, are terms created by Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, to describe what he saw as the intersection of what needs to be simultaneously chaotic and orderly.