August 2005 // Volume 43 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Organizational Evolution: Applying Genetic Principles to the Management of Extension Systems

Insight into organizational management can be gained by looking at natural systems. Ideas in Extension organizations are analogous to the genetic makeup of populations of organisms. Genetic makeup determines the chemistry, size and behavior of these populations. Similarly, ideas in organizations determine the future size, activities and effectiveness. This article first examines the principles of population genetics and how these principles drive genetic change. This concept is then extended to Extension to demonstrate how ideas appear to follow similar laws. Finally, this concept is used to derive suggestions for improving effectiveness of organizations.

John A. Winder
Assistant Director
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon


Authors and researchers have begun to recognize that analogs to biological "laws" can be applied to improve effectiveness of organizations and industrial processes. Burns and Stalker (1961) may have been the first to characterize business models as organic or mechanistic. They hypothesized that hierarchical mechanistic systems are preferred when the business environment is very stable, while more fluid designs resembling natural systems (organic) were more effective during times of rapid change. Baskin (1998) described how businesses exist in "ecosystems" similar to biological organisms and how businesses evolve in response to changes in the "environment." Wheatley (1999) used models derived from observation of natural "systems" to describe organizational processes and expected outcomes. Ray (1991) demonstrated another novel application of biological principles to inorganic problems when he created a system that allowed machine code to evolve based on Darwinian and Mendelian principles. His evolved code was smaller and faster than original code, indicating that evolutionary processes may be applied to software development.

Genetics is at the core of most biological processes. Understanding of genetic systems was greatly enhanced in by Mendel in 1865 (Mendel et al., 1950) and Darwin (1859) whose principles lead to creation of a host of evolutionary sciences. Among these is a mathematical approach called "population genetics" that described creation, movement, and expression of genes in groups of inter-mating organisms (populations).

Hardy and Weinberg developed the main tenet of population genetics in 1908 when they demonstrated that only four processes caused change (evolution) in genetic composition of populations (Falconer & Mackay, 1996). These processes are:

  1. Mutation: spontaneous creation of new genes,
  2. Migration: movement of genes into or out of a population,
  3. Selection: differential reproductive rates among organisms of differing genetic makeup, and
  4. The effect of inbreeding in small subpopulations.

Extension organizations behave very much like interbreeding populations. While genes create the blueprint determining potential for size, shape, behavior, and chemistry of organisms, ideas are the blueprint for Extension and determine its future size, activities, and effectiveness. There is also an analogy for each genetic principle in Extension.

  1. Ideas are similar to genes in that they can be spontaneously generated (mutated).
  2. Ideas migrate into or out of an organization or move within the organization.
  3. Application of ideas is analogous to the expression of genes. Decision-makers select ideas for application much as nature and man allow organisms to reproduce based on their genetic composition.
  4. Inbreeding occurs in Extension when interaction with the outside world is limited.

The following examines these four factors in detail and describes how Extension decision-makers can utilize these concepts to improve the generation, importation, and application of quality ideas to improve the effectiveness of the Extension organization.

The Significance of Diversity

Before examining the four mechanisms that result in change in natural populations and Extension systems, it is important to describe one additional component that determines "resiliency" of both biological populations and organizations.

In living organisms, maintenance of genetic diversity is often key to survival.

  • If populations lack diversity, they are unable to respond to changes in the environment. This leads to decline in populations and, in extreme cases, extinction of sub-species and/or species.

  • Conversely, populations that maintain some degree of genetic variation possess potential to change in response to new environmental challenges. The ability of Extension to respond to external challenges is critical to both function and long-term survival.

In Extension, diversity of ideas (and ideals) is also crucial for survival and success.

  • If an Extension organization is based on a narrow set of ideas (or ideals), it will be unable to change in response to shifts in clientele needs or to emerging opportunities. Extension systems based on uniform thought are often intolerant of viewpoints that do not fit preset norms. If change is necessary, these systems are too static and lack the ideas needed to respond to the challenge.

  • Extension organizations that have diversity of ideas possess the potential to change, survive and thrive, and healthy Extension systems encourage diversity of thought. This can be fostered by hiring individuals with diverse backgrounds and by creating an environment that is conducive to creation, importation, and application of new concepts.

Just as in nature, Extension must evolve or die, and lack of diversity may well result in functional extinction.

Mutation: Spontaneous Creation of Genes and Ideas

In biological systems, new genetic material arises spontaneously by change in the molecular structure of DNA. This process is called "mutation." Mutation occurs at very low rates, and most new mutations when expressed are harmful to the organism. This is because over evolutionary time most desirable genes were incorporated into the genome of organisms. Therefore, changes in the structure of these genes (mutations) are much more likely to be harmful than favorable. Only on rare occasions does a mutation result in a positive outcome.

  • Over evolutionary time, mutation is very important because it is the only means by which new genetic material can be created. But in finite timeframes, the net affect of mutation is miniscule because rates are low, and deleterious mutations are quickly discarded through the process of natural selection.

  • Geneticists can increase mutation rates by applying "mutagenic" agents, but this strategy has little practical application because it creates far more genetic "trash" than valuable new genes.

As with evolving organisms, Extension's "genome" is composed of many good ideas that have been accumulating over time. Therefore, when ideas are spontaneously created in a vacuum, they are much like mutated genes.

  • Ideas that are created without outside input are usually flawed. Only rarely will this result in functional novel concepts. Defective ideas will not function and will eventually be discarded from the organizations.

  • When Extension managers demand creativity but do not provide resources for travel or research, they will no doubt stimulate ideas, but these ideas will almost always be flawed and eventually fail just as increasing mutation rates results in more genetic trash.

Migration: Movement of Genes and Ideas

There is only one mechanism besides mutation by which new genetic material can be introduced into a population. This process is called "migration." This occurs when an organism with genetic composition different from the average of the population enters or leaves the population. This is the most powerful (and useful) mechanism affecting positive genetic change, and it is the dominant mechanism used by geneticists and farmers to enhance the genetic merit of plants and animals.

  • Migration is much more efficient than mutation in creating positive genetic change because there is a much higher probability of finding valuable genes in another population than through a mutational event. Farmers buy seed, breeding stock, semen, and embryos from outside sources because they recognize they are much more likely to find the best genetics if they expand their search beyond their own fields and herds.

  • In order to create positive change within biological systems, organisms with desirable genes must enter the population or individuals with inferior genes must leave. If migrants are similar to the average genetic makeup of the population, no change will occur.

As mentioned previously, ideas can be move into or out of the organization, and there are actions and activities that can be undertaken to enhance movement of ideas and to improve the creativity of the Extension organization.

  • It is much more efficient to seek new and important ideas outside of a county, region, or state than by waiting for a useful idea to arise spontaneously within. Managers should encourage employees to pursue professional development activities that truly expand their thought processes. They should also seek to hire persons who bring new ideas to the organization. Sabbatical leaves should be approved on the basis of their potential to bring new ideas to the organization. Processes should also be in place to bring innovators into the organization from the outside for "reverse sabbaticals." This exposes the entire staff to new concepts.

  • Ideas flowing from the outside of the organization inward must be different and more effective than those commonly held by the organization or there will be no net positive effect. It is common for employees to attend meetings with others possessing similar ideas. This only codifies existing thinking and does not provide any new ideas to the organization. Employees should attend meetings and training sessions that push them out of their comfort zones and expose them to new ideas.

Selection: Allowing "Fit" Organisms to Reproduce and Best Ideas to Be Applied

The selection process allows organisms with desirable genes to reproduce at greater rates than those lacking desirable genes. This can either be applied as environmental pressure (natural selection) or by the hand of man (artificial selection).

  • Over time, those with the highest reproductive rates leave more progeny and alter the future genetic makeup of the population. Man has used selection as a means of changing plants and animals for millennia. Those with the most desired characteristics were cultivated and encouraged to reproduce. Those without the desired characteristics were restricted from entering the breeding population.

  • In natural systems, selection also tends to be cyclical. When resources (food and habitat) are abundant, little selection pressure is exerted, and organisms in a population reproduce at relatively comparable rates. When resources dry up, only the most "fit" compete and reproduce. It is during these times that selection drives substantial change in the genetic makeup of the population.

In Extension, selection is applied by administration or by policy. When ideas are applied (and supported), it is much like an organism reproducing. Care should be taken to "select" the right ideas for implementation.

  • Extension can benefit by creating structures that encourage nonproductive persons to leave the organization. If used properly, tenure and evaluative processes provide an incentive for uncreative persons to exit the organization. It is extremely important that these processes function properly. Sometimes evaluation and tenure are inadvertently used to encourage conformity to a standard manner of thinking. This results in loss of diversity as the best thinkers become frustrated and leave. Loss of good ideas will change the "composition" of the organization, but this will occur in the wrong direction.

  • As in natural systems, an idea is much more likely to be applied during times of plenty (robust budgets, high profits, etc.). Conversely, when funding is tight, decision-makers are forced to be more selective as to which ideas are supported and implemented. Often, when funding is limited, managers make the mistake of reducing budgets across the board instead of selectively limiting resources. Across-the-board reductions diminish application of good and bad ideas, alike. Conversely, selective reductions or program eliminations allow good ideas to continue to flourish while eliminating ideas that are less useful to the organization.

Inbreeding: Isolation of Small Subpopulations

In nature, large populations are often segregated into smaller breeding groups by geography or by catastrophic events that isolate small subpopulations from the main population. Perhaps an island is formed by a flood or earthquake, isolating animals and plants that cannot swim or fly to the mainland. If the isolated group is very small, relatives begin to mate at increased frequency causing increased inbreeding. As a result, small subpopulations become little more than an extended family.

  • When inbreeding occurs, diversity is lost within subpopulations over time as individuals within an interbreeding subpopulation become increasingly more related and consequently more similar in appearance and function.

  • Although within the subpopulation there is more genetic uniformity, each subpopulation tends to drift apart, resulting in uniform subpopulations that differ from one another. Though this creates diversity within the larger population, the diversity among subpopulations is of little value to the population as a whole because there is no exchange of genetic material between subpopulations. (Subpopulations are still isolated from one another.)

  • As organisms become more uniform within each subpopulation, they become much less resilient and lose the ability to respond to environmental changes. They lack the diversity necessary to deal with these changes. Thus, small isolated subpopulations are much more likely to fail.

  • Another result of inbreeding is the increased expression of deleterious genes. In non-inbred populations, bad genes are often masked by other genes and not expressed. This is possible because they tend to pair with genes that are functional and dominant. With inbreeding, there is an increased probability that two deleterious genes will pair up and thus be expressed fully.

  • When barriers are removed and previously isolated groups are allowed to interbreed, the negative effects of inbreeding are reversed. Actually very little "migration" of new genes into a subpopulation can completely arrest the inbreeding process. When two individuals from different inbred subpopulations mate, the resulting offspring is a hybrid that is almost always more genetically "fit" than its inbred parents. Therefore, the overall fitness of the population increases when subdivisions are removed and subpopulations mix.

In Extension, isolation of individuals in small cells causes "idea inbreeding." This may occur in an isolated county office with only a few persons interacting on a regular basis or any time that individuals fail to openly exchange ideas. Over time, these isolated pools become increasingly uniform.

  • Persons in these small groups are often driven by a single dominant personality. It is not uncommon for individuals in isolated groups to use common speech and exhibit similar behavior patterns. As in natural systems, this "inbreeding" process results in increased uniformity.

  • Ideas within any one group also tend to "drift" away from those in other groups, creating pools of diverse but often flawed ideas. Even when a good idea occurs, there is little opportunity for it to spread beyond the cell in which the idea was created.

  • Ideas that occur in isolated environments are often not scrutinized or evaluated. Therefore, it is much more likely that "deleterious" ideas will be expressed within these small cells.

  • Fortunately, idea inbreeding can be overcome relatively easily by removing barriers between groups. This can be done by encouraging travel to "idea rich" settings, transferring personnel more frequently, or creating venues for exchange of ideas among individuals within the greater organization, such as periodic seminars, conferences, and internal newsletters. As in nature, mixing of ideas from previously isolated cells creates hybrid ideas that are almost always more effective when applied.

Summary and Conclusions

Ideas in organizations such as Extension function much like genes in interbreeding populations of organisms. Genes are the blueprint for living things, whereas ideas determine the functionality of organizations. If Extension managers apply processes learned from the study of genetics to their organizations, generation, movement, and application of ideas will be enhanced. There are five aspects of "idea management" that are direct adaptations of genetic principles. These are outlined below.

  1. Maintain a diversity of ideas within your organization. This will help you respond to change and allow you to avoid functional extinction.

  2. Do not expect important ideas to be created in a vacuum. Demanding creativity without supporting external interaction will result in creation of flawed ideas that have not been exposed to adequate scrutiny. These ideas will have little positive effect on the organization.

  3. Aggressively support external interaction. Encourage personnel to attend meetings that "stretch" their thinking, and discourage attendance at meetings that simply reinforce existing thought processes. Use sabbatical leaves to bring new ideas into organizations, and utilize external review to enhance quality of ideas generated internally.

  4. Carefully consider which ideas are selected for application. Once again, there is a tendency to move toward conformity. This can result in loss of diversity and loss of ability to respond to future challenges. Make certain that evaluative processes like performance appraisal and application for tenure reward creativity and diversity of thought. These processes must not become mechanisms that drive persons toward a common manner of thinking, resulting in a highly uniform organization. Base dismissals upon lack of creativity or productivity and not failure to conform to institutional thought processes. Because idea "selection" is greatest during times of budgetary constriction, take care to eliminate ideas with the least chance of success and the lowest value to the organization. Avoid across-the-board reductions. These tend to eliminate the worst ideas in each sector, but not the worst ideas in the organization as a whole.

  5. Take care to eliminate barriers that isolate individuals. Isolated pools of individuals become more uniform and are much more likely to apply flawed ideas. Isolated cells also tend to drift apart. Though this creates diversity, there is no mixing of ideas therefore no one benefits. Expect everyone in the organization to participate in professional development and active exchange of ideas outside of their work environment. Often the most creative persons receive the greatest attention. However, managers should never forget the importance of "stretching" every individual in the organization and the importance of removing barriers affecting all employees. Organizations such as Extension with geographically dispersed employees are most vulnerable to idea inbreeding. These organizations must develop a culture that stimulates exchange of ideas and external pursuit of knowledge.


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Falconer, D.S. & Mackay, T. F. C. (1996). Introduction to quantitative genetics. 4th Ed. Edinburgh: Longmon Publishing.

Mendel, G., Correns, C., Tschermak, A. & von, DeVries, H. (1950). The birth of genetics. Genetics 35:5 (part 2).

Ray, T. S. (1991). Evolution and optimization of digital organisms. In Billingsley K.R., E. Derohanes, H Brown, III (Eds.), Scientific excellence in supercomputing: The IBM 1990 contest prize papers, Athens, GA, 30602: The Baldwin Press, The University of Georgia. December 1991, Pp. 489-531.

Wheatley, M.J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: discovering order in a chaotic world. 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.