(With thanks to photographer @veeterzy for generously sharing this photo – Unsplash CreativeCommons – CC0)

The introduction to an article by Deloitte University Press in April 15, 2015 reads:

“Businesses are moving beyond traditional industry silos and coalescing into richly networked ecosystems, creating new opportunities for innovation alongside new challenges for many incumbent enterprises”

And it referred to the recent initial public offering (IPO) by Chinese online eCommerce company “Alibaba” explaining “Largely overlooked in the commentary, however, was another important signpost to the future. In the prospectus it compiled to describe its vision, philosophy, and growth strategy, Alibaba used one word no fewer than 160 times: ‘ecosystem'”.

Organisations willing to be part of an evolution in consciousness that is changing the way we see and experience life and the world around us are redefining themselves at the most fundamental level. And this change has to do with our biology as social systems.

Ecosystems are the way in which life evolved in the Universe. The perfect balance of parameters in the solar system made it possible for organisms to form and thrive in our planet. If we look at the fractal design of life, we observe the same organisational pattern at every scale of living organisms. From a single cell to a more complex multi-cellular organism, to organs in our body, to a human, an organisation, societies or markets, transport systems … each of these organisations grow in complexity repeating the same design pattern at every scale. Each higher level organism is able to deliver more complex functions than the preceding one.

In a famous Harvard Business Review article from May-June 1993, James F. Moore, who pioneered the business ecosystem approach to studying organisations wrote:

Successful businesses are those that evolve rapidly and effectively. Yet innovative businesses can’t evolve in a vacuum. They must attract resources of all sorts, drawing in capital, partners, suppliers, and customers to create cooperative networks. . . I suggest that a company be viewed not as a member of a single industry but as part of a business ecosystem that crosses a variety of industries. In a business ecosystem, companies co-evolve capabilities around a new innovation: They work cooperatively and competitively to support new products, satisfy customer needs, and eventually incorporate the next round of innovations.

Today we have many examples of how taking a systemic approach to business by aligning purpose with the interlocking needs of the world around them is positioning companies well into the future. And the opposite is also being demonstrated by the exponential rate of companies that die or are in the process of being acquired.

Evolving traditional hierarchical organisations so that they become flexible, adaptable open complex systems is fundamental to survival. Key to this transformation is that they acknowledge the inter-dependencies with this broader ecosystem of which they are part: communities, environment, businesses, governments, suppliers, and other stakeholders, and that they establish mechanisms through which they grow and renew the energy-resources consumed by the broader system. In other words, make decisions that benefit the whole, not the individual actor in the system. A successful systemic model is a result of looking for the global instead of local benefit.

In the context of the organisation as a complex living system we could think of the metaphor of the “organisation as a tree”.

Trees are a vital component of a woodland ecosystem. They play a significant role in reducing erosion and moderating climate providing a habitat for a wide variety of life forms from animals to plants, fungi, parasites, algae. They have a primary function of transforming carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere and store large quantities of carbon. They release oxygen creating a breathable atmosphere. They filter the air. They form communities by developing their own specialised invertebrates. For example, the Tasmanian oak has been found to shelter 306 associated species of insects. Within their ecosystems, trees are fundamental in developing habitat. In mangrove swamps the roots of the mangrove trees reduce the speed of flow of tidal currents and trap water-borne sediment, reducing the water depth and creating suitable conditions for further mangrove colonisation. These swamps also provide an effective buffer against the more damaging effects of cyclones and tsunamis.

Trees provide water and storage retention, recycle rainwater, moderate water flows.They absorb it and release it back filtering it in the process. They participate in the nitrogen cycle together with bacteria that processes it for the tree to consume. They provide shade, shelter, timber for construction, fuel for cooking and heating, produce and enable production of food such as fruits, nuts, berries, mushrooms. They are a cultural object of ancient and modern societies. They harbour pollinators, facilitate biological control, provide nurseries and habitats for migratory species. It has been demonstrated that some trees are interconnected through their root system, forming a colony. The tree consumes resources from the woodland ecosystem and more importantly it’s function is key in regenerating them. The tree does not impede the multiple forms of life that consume the tree’s resources to exist. On the contrary, it makes them prosperous because each of these organisms enable and foster the tree’s ecosystem success.

As the tree consumes resources from the environment it continuously provides invaluable investment of energy replenishing and benefiting the ecosystem in uncountable ways. The tree “knows” that it has to be an interdependent part of the world around it otherwise the environment will become hostile to its needs and it won’t be able to survive.

Could we think of organisations as trees that encourage, foster, care for all other organisms within their ecosystems? If the organisation is a complex living system, what are the inter-dependencies, connections, sources of resource-recycling and production that it can take more care of as to ensure their continuity? Would it make sense that companies worked in a cooperative relationship as to create more opportunities for the larger ecosystem?

And how is hostility in your environment helping your organisation?

Expanding our mental model so that we create a culture that resembles living systems rather than one-way power hierarchies may lead to extraordinary results at team and organisational levels; and very importantly, at business ecosystem levels. Forming autonomous “cells” (organisms) that specialise in creating specific outcomes that the larger system needs to achieve it’s purpose, that are self-led and inter-dependent at the same time is the way in which biological organisms grow and prosper. And it is demonstrated that this approach makes business organisations successful too, and this success projects into the larger business community.

In my next post I will talk about the transformational aspects of adopting this different worldview that will give your company the opportunity to survive into the future.

More sources

Woodland Trust Org, Wikipedia, Reinventing Organizations – Frederic Laloux, 2014

Hi there, I am Sofia Woloschin, my purpose is to take a responsible part in the evolution of human consciousness that is underway. My hope is that I stick around like purposed people so that we build conscious businesses and communities together. I practice Agile, Systems thinking and Coaching as enablers of my own growth and to serve people in their growth journeys…

If this topic is of interest, I would love to learn about your viewpoints. Thank you for reading!