Holonic organisational architectures

John Mathews*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


The management of complexity is proving to be a major issue for organisations, as are problems of reliability and flexibility. It is widely agreed that these problems can be traced to organisational architectures emphasising centralisation and control. A solution to the problem of complexity lies then, not in developing more sophisticated approaches to the 'management of complexity', but in cutting back the complexity at source. A range of alternative architectures has emerged, in both industrial settings and in technological systems, where the emphasis is on building autonomy into nested sequences of operational entities; in these architectures, the achievement of system order arises as an issue of coordination of these semi-autonomous entities rather than centralised control over the atomistic operations themselves. Examples of this solution are given in cellular manufacturing, robotic systems, software engineering (Object-oriented programming') and in communication systems. These solutions are generalised as 'holonic organisational architecture' (after Koestler's 1967 terminological innovation) and their general properties derived. Use is made of a triad of relations which arises naturally from the holonic perspective: there are first order relations pertaining to holons themselves; second order relations pertaining to inter-holonic integration at any particular level; and third order relations linking the total system to its holonic constituents. The dynamic properties of holonic systems are demonstrated, again using the triad of relations, such as in organisational learning and innovation. These insights are applied in some remarks concerning the prescriptive use of the holonic perspective, in the design of holonic systems. Finally the paper looks beyond techno-organisational constructs to find evidence of holonic architectures throughout the natural and biological world, adding further support to the resilience and robustness of this structure. Its significance as a comprehensive alternative to the still dominant hierarchical organisational architecture is thereby underlined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-54
Number of pages28
JournalHuman Systems Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Cellular manufacturing
  • Heterarchical manufacturing systems
  • Holism
  • Holonic robotic systems
  • Holonic systems
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Organisational architecture
  • Organisational design
  • Organisational learning
  • Sociotechnical systems


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