Academic journal article International Management Review

The Holonic Perspective in Management and Manufacturing

Academic journal article International Management Review

The Holonic Perspective in Management and Manufacturing

Article excerpt


The notions of holon and holarchy (the hierarchical ordering of holons)-formally introduced in 1967 with the publication of Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine-are more and more frequently found in the literature of management science, organizational studies, business administration, and entrepreneurship. By systematically applying the whole/part conceptual relation, we can reconsider the very same ideas of organization, management, and manufacturing. Connected to these ideas are those of holonic networks, holonic and virtual enterprises, virtual organizations, agile manufacturing networks, holonic manufacturing systems, fractal enterprise, and bionic manufacturing.

[Keywords] Holarchies; holonic networks; holonic organizations; holonic manufacturing systems; bionic manufacturing; systems; fractal manufacturing systems


In the world of firms, management, and control in general, a silent conceptual movement has been under way for less than forty years now, beginning in 1967 with the publication of Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine, which formally introduced the concepts of holon and holarchy, which is conceived of as a hierarchical structure of holons (Mella, 2005).

According to Koestler (1967) and Ken Wilber (1995) - who tried to generalize the holonic perspective - in observing the universe surrounding us (at the physical and biological level and in the real or formal sense), we must take into account the whole/part relationship: any observable unit is at the same time a whole - composed of smaller parts - and part of a larger whole. By systematically applying the whole/part conceptual relationship, or the equivalent one of container/contained, the universe appears to us as a hierarchy of holons: that is, as a holarchy. The entire machine of life evolves toward increasingly more complex states, as if a ghost were guiding the machine.

Since then, the concepts of holon and holarchy have been adopted, especially in recent times, by many authors from a variety of disciplines and in different contexts and have been rapidly spreading to all sectors of research. After discussing the original meaning, this short theoretical essay will examine in what sense the holonic view is spreading to the field of management, business administration, accounting, organization theory, and manufacturing systems.

Holons and Holarchies

Holon - which derives from the combination of the Greek "holos," which means "all," and the suffix "-on," which indicates the neutral form and means "particle" or "part" (as in proton, neutron and electron) - is the term coined to represent the basic element of the holonic view, which considers relevant not so much the connection among elements as their inclusion in each other.

Parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist in the domain of life... The organism is to be regarded as a multi-leveled hierarchy of semi-autonomous sub-wholes, branching into subwholes of a lower order, and so on. Sub -wholes on any level of the hierarchy are referred to as holons. (Koestler, 1967: Appendix 1.1)

Koestler viewed the holon as a Janus-faced entity: if it observes its own interior, it considers itself a whole formed by (containing) subordinate parts; if it observes its exterior, it considers itself a part or element of (contained in) a vaster whole. However, in observing itself, it sees itself as a self-reliant and unique individual that tries both to survive (it is a viable system) and to integrate with other holons:

These sub-wholes - or "holons", as I have proposed to call them - are Janus-faced entities which display both the independent properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. Each holon must preserve and assert its autonomy; otherwise, the organism would lose its articulation and dissolve into an amorphous mass - but, at the same time, the holon must remain subordinate to the demands of the (existing or evolving) whole (Koestler, 1972, pp. …

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