Nature-based stories #3 - The flatworm

Organizational Renewal - What can organizations learn from the regeneration capabilities of flatworms

Flatworms, an ancient species of our oceans with their own unique evolutionary intelligence exist as a group of soft-bodied invertebrates. They are leaf-like and flat in appearance, between 1mm-50 cm in size, and can be found within the relentless flux of the intertidal zone, in shallow rockpools, and within deeper waters ranging between 5-10m.

Flatworms have developed a distinct way of moving, both over underwater surfaces and within the water column itself. To creep over ocean shrubbery within the kelp forests or the mountainous overhangs of reefs, they do so by means of locomotion. Within this process the flatworm uses a dense array of cilia (tiny hairs) that coat their underside. This beating ciliary activity that runs from head to tail upon their underside thus propels a gliding motion, enabling the flatworm’s mobility. Generally, within this process of locomotion, a substantial amount of mucous is produced and secreted by the flatworm which assists in the animal’s fluid mobility. The mucous allows the flatworm to also attach to its surfaces as well as raise its body ever-so-slightly to enable maximum ciliary activity.

However, in the case of larger flatworms where ciliary forces are not strong enough, the animal must use an alternative for propulsive movement in the water. When suspended or dancing within the water column, (a fairly common place to see a larger flatworm in South African waters), they use muscular contractions which enable their undulating bodies to swim through the water. Therefore, they are highly versatile and fluid in their overall mobility. The nature of their soft bodies also makes them very flexible and somewhat malleable to their surrounding environment.

When I first saw a flatworm “flying” and spiraling in the water for the first time, its way of moving reminded me of a magic “flying” carpet, or an alien underwater space shuttle (watch the YouTube video to see what l mean. See link below).

If we are to form an analogy with regards to a corporate organization, it is obvious that this ancient species over time, has developed a unique and successful way of mobility and versatility to be able to feed on small crustaceans and molluscs. Their use of locomotion on surfaces as well as swimming in ocean waters can be translated into a corporate context.

The analogy is a high level of adaptability and agility to catch “clients” in the marketplace. To be more efficient, they developed two very different strategies, as only one approach was probably not sufficient.

In resilient organizations, it is very important to not only rely on one strategy. As we saw during the COVID crisis, many companies did not have alternative ways to “move” in the market and adapt to the unprecedented change in the business ecosystem.

Another unique capability of the flatworm is their capability to “read” the environment; They possess a distinct cluster of sensory organs that are concentrated at the head, along with their nervous system. These sensory organs; regarded as a type of brain, allow them to culminate knowledge of their surroundings as they travel, as well as interpret the water temperature and current.

In the corporate organizational context this would relate to their “customer relation management” ability. Using their flexible mobility and the clustering of observation data to constantly be connected with the ideal environment, and interpret the best conditions to find their “clients”, essentially means to find the food they love.

A third special characteristic of a flatworm lies within its unique way of digesting food. They do not have a blood-circulatory system. Digestion works on the basis of diffusion of food particles directly through the body into the cells. Therefore, a flatworm’s gut extends as much as possible into the furthest reaches of the body in order for maximum absorption of nutrients to take place.

Waste is either ejected through the mouth, as flatworms do not have an anus, or is excreted via pores that are connected to the digestive tract. Flatworm’s are also able to use their cells as miniature storage units for food reserves. This means that the animal is able to quite literally digest their own tissue when food is scarce which due to their magical capability of regeneration, which is the flatworm’s fundamental superpower.

The direct way to absorb food particles instead of having to maintain a complex digestive system made me think about the amazing survival capacities of flatworms. Their system is functioning in the simplest of ways: No blood circulation needed, no extra organs to maintain circulation – they operate on simple diffusion and expansion of the digestive tract, and their own cells are storage units for nutrients. Wow! I am asking myself, if it would be possible for a company to be self-sufficient in a similar way. Any ideas?

Finally, I want to speak about the most fascinating superpower of this dynamic species: It lies within its power of regeneration.

It has been documented that a flatworm can regenerate itself entirely from “a slice one hundredth of the size of the original animal.” (1) This process of regeneration can tell us a lot about the intelligent adaptation of this species and serves as a powerful representation of the fluidity and willpower that many species have developed to evolve through the ages.

The “superpower” of the flatworm for cell-renewal and its capacity to regenerate prompted me reflect about what capabilities organizations and leaders need to “renew” the organization after a dramatic downturn and crisis. In organizational psychology we mostly research “Organizational development” – but research about “Organizational Renewal” is difficult to find.

Pirjo Stahle from Aalto University did a research in 2011 about how to measure organizational renewal capacity. It´s widely agreed that organizational success is linked to its ability to renewal and innovation. This capability is connected to dynamic processes about how “intellectual capital” is maintained and created within an organization.

Three main questions are answered in her paper: 1) “What is organizational renewal capability and what are the antecedents for it? 2) How can renewal capability be measured in a reliable and meaningful way? 3) How can a company benefit from the measurement of renewal capability?”

For me, the flatworm is a true inspiration to think about in terms of what knowledge and “evolutionary” steps a company needs in order to renew itself, simplify digestive processes and “learn” a new way to move within the business ecosystem, in order to  survive in fast-moving markets, especially when a “development” would take too long to secure survival.

Any ideas? Or thoughts that could inspire conversation Contact me on: info@iamwilderness.de

Photocredit and Marine biology scientific content research: Chryssea Michaela Johnson

References:

<https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230791908_Measuring_Organizational_Renewal_Capability_Case_Training_Service_Business

Branch, G., n.d. Two oceans.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. flatworm | Reproduction, Examples, & Characteristics. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/animal/flatworm

Youtube: https://youtu.be/_6XWgfxrI5M

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