Biological ecosystems: what business teams must learn

When a new enterprise enters its market it must quickly find a viable niche in its business ecosystem or it will not survive. Similarly for cross-functional teams in major organisations : if the team does not find a value niche in that organisation's overall ecosystem then it will not deliver its potential. Amazingly certain key concepts in biological ecosystems transfer immediately into the business world.

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There are very important lessons we can use here from the ecology of biological networks and food webs [1] and particularly:

  1. The "Community Assembly" Process

  2. The Three Types of relationships in a Food web

  3. The Complex interdependencies between species

Community Assembly

This is the name given to the process of self-organisation within a biological community which only admits a new species (business team or enterprise) into its “ecological niche” if it fits together in a “functional food web” with all the other species (customers, complementors & competitors) already there.

Community Assembly has three conditions which need to be fulfilled for a new species to be successfully incorporated in the community:

  1. The new species must be adapted to the physical conditions at the site - think market

  2. The site must have the right kind of food and enough of it for the new species to be able to grow and reproduce - think customers and resource partners

  3. If the site already has other animals that can eat the new species then deaths cannot exceed births - think competitors and alternatives


Food Web Relationships

Essentially 3 types of relationship exist between species in a food web:

  1. Predator : e.g. Cats consume Mice

  2. Competitor: e.g. Foxes and Cats eat Mice, Mice and Sheep eat Grass (competition for food or other resources)

  3. Symbiant : e.g. Birds co-exist with Ticks for mutual benefit

In business and organisational terms a new entity must identify the other main species in its web and be able to establish which type of relationship exists or will be created – predator, competitor or symbiant.

When we think of competition we often only think of ecological predators, who compete for customers, and neglect ecological competitors who compete for vital resources such as staff.

In ecology the roles of the other species are generally fixed however in the business and organisational worlds the roles an entity can play are much more fluid with for example a company being a predator in one market and a symbiant in another.

More importantly these roles can be shaped as part of the new entity set-up as at this stage most roles in the business ecosystem are only at a potential state.

Therefore the opportunity exists to consider how to convert potential powerful competitors into symbiants or at very least to less direct competitors within the ecosystem.


Complex interdependencies and feedback loops

These exist between species and the outcomes may be counter- intuitive and often only emerge over long periods of time.

For example the relationships between prey and predator [2]:

“As settlers spread into the West, they killed vast numbers of animals, from grizzlies to mice, in an effort to make the wild more suitable for habitation. Hunting on this scale had a variety of effects on the rest of the ecosystem, and one of the best examples is that of hunting in the national game preserve of Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau.

As the number of humans in the area increased, the need (and the ability) to kill the predatory animals increased. In just over ten years 674 cougars, 3,000 coyotes and 120 bobcats were killed. As the number of predators available to kill the areas deer population decreased, so the number of deer increased. With almost all predators being wiped out, the deer population shot from around 3,000 in 1906 to over 100,000 in 1924. This increase meant the rate at which the local fauna was consumed similarly shot up, past its ability to regenerate itself.

With the deer eating vegetation faster than it could grow, soon there was almost no food left, with the result that most of the deer swiftly died, leaving an expanse of largely bare (but predator-free) land”.

In business and organisational terms this principle applies equally well – for example if you go into a price war with your major competitor you are just as likely to destroy the profitability of the market for yourself as for them.

Another example would be destroying your major competitor and then being perceived as having created a monopolistic situation where your potential customers have no choice and causing a market or regulatory backlash.



References

1. Marten. G., 2001, Human Ecology – Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development, Earthscan

2. Davis. M., Ecology of Fear, Metropolitan Books




About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors. Recognized as a leading expert in the growing area of Virtual Enterprise Networks, Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and working practices. Ken is the founder of www.bioteams.com – a research blog dedicated to how organizational teams can learn from nature’s best teams.


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