Arie de Geus

In 1951, while studying for his doctorate in Business Administration at the Nederlandse Economische Hoogeschool (later Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, Arie de Geus joined Shell as a cost-accountant at Pernis Refinery to support himself during his studies. Following his graduation he stayed on at Shell and remained with the company for 38 years, working in Holland, Turkey, Belgium and Brazil, before returning to the UK as Regional Coordinator for Africa and South-Asia in 1979.  In the fullness of time he was appointed Group Planning Coordinator in which position he stayed until his retirement in 1989. 

During his many years with Shell he explored and developed many issues, and his appointment to Group Planning presented the perfect opportunity for him to attempt to find answers to some intriguing questions. One of the main areas lay in the real nature of the decision-taking process in organizations.  At that time, senior managers felt that decision-taking was purely a matter of applying their accumulated knowledge, whereas he believed that it was fundamentally a learning process. This did not make for an easy discussion with his colleagues, but a break-through came when Napier Collyns advised him that he would be better heard if he talked "from the outside in."

So, a contact was made with the Harvard Business Review about the possibility of writing a paper based on his experiences. The resulting article, 'Planning as Learning', published in 1988, did a great deal to cement his reputation both inside and outside Shell. Within two years (and boosted by the publication of Peter Senge's book, 'The Fifth Discipline') the organisational-learning movement began to really take off.

After his retirement from Shell in 1989, Arie continued to pursue his ideas about organizational learning, and in the same year The Center for Organizational Learning was formed at MIT, with Peter Senge as Director, and Ed Schein, Chris Argyris, Ray Stata, Bill O'Brien and Arie as key advisers and founder members.

Equally pressing was a desire to identify the characteristics that allowed certain companies to survive for hundreds of years while others survived only a few, and these questions eventually led to the publication of his book in 1997 for which he is probably most famous - 'The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment'.  He maintains that the most enduring companies treat their enterprises as "living work communities" rather than as purely economic machines. During those years he also spent several years as head of an advisory group to the World Bank, as an advisor to the Office of the Auditor General in Canada and to the Dutch Ministry of Transport and Communications (Rijkswaterstaat).

Arie continued to work closely with Peter Senge and SoL (the Society for Organizational Learning).  He was also involved with the London School of Economics, had been a Visiting Fellow at London Business School and had advised many government and private institutions. He was a founder member of SoL (the Society for Organizational Learning) and of GBN (the Global Business Network).

Arie held the position of Co-Chairman of the Netherlands-British Chamber of Commerce for 7 years from 1981, and was appointed Officer, Order of Oranje-Nassau, by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1988.  He received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Westminster in 1997.

'The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment' has been translated into more than twenty languages and has received a number of awards.  Business Week named it one of the ten best business books in the year it was published and, the same year, the Financial Times accorded it the Edwin G Booz Prize for "the most insightful, innovative management book of the year".

Following his retirement, Arie's thinking developed along very definite lines, starting from long-term (scenario) planning and the real nature of companies, moving into decision-taking theory and the consequences for management of living in a world in which human talent had become the critical success factor, rather than the money and capital from the industrial age.