The word ecosystems has become popular, both with reference to the environment and to the business and I like to think that the Future Centre share some of this responsibility.
There are several differences between natural and business ecosystems and many times I have had to respond to challenge from people who are, usually correctly, pointing out that it is improper to suggest an equivalence of the one to the other. I have being doing so also through this blog, and will continue to do that to stimulate a debate.
First of all let me be blunt: there is no natural ecosystem, that is just a figment of our imagination, a way to model a set of relations that we perceive among (a subset of) constituencies. We talk about the dynamic balance among carnivores- herbivores-vegetation, about the delicate relations among a proud of lions but we forget that such an ecosystem comprises bugs of many sorts, billions of billions of microbes, trillions of trillions of molecules. Our concept of natural ecosystem is just a model, an abstraction of reality that is not even understood in its details. But it is a useful abstraction!
A lion when hungry chases a gazelle and provided it is fast enough (or the gazelle is not fast enough) it will have dinner. That is a reasonable description that is statistically valid. But there have been cases of lions getting along with a gazelle and never looking at it as a meal. This does not invalidate the model … because it is just a model, it is not the reality. As far as it matches reality most of the time and what we want is a general understanding that is ok.
Same thing applies to business ecosystems, they are a model as well.
As for natural ecosystems it is difficult, correction, impossible, to exactly define the boundary. The savannah ecosystem embeds the lion / gazelle ecosystem and this embeds the proud of lions ecosystem. At the same time the proud of lions ecosystems is embedded in the forest ecosystem and the savannah ecosystems partly overlaps with river ecosystems and watering holes ecosystems.
When we talk about an ecosystem we need to define its boundary, not because there is a boundary but because we choose to fix our observation and reasoning within a certain domain. At the same time we have to realize that such a domain will have interactions with other neighboring or overlapping domains.
Given this fuzziness in ecosystems (we do not exactly defines their constituencies, we do not know exactly their boundaries,…) how can we define that that “something” is an ecosystem?
Well, my pick is as good as yours. Mine is: an ecosystem is a place where relationships among its (considered) constituency are not regulated by lawyers!
This does not mean that there is no rule. There are rules of the game, like lions do not eat salad, gazelles do. But that is just the way it is, there is no one checking that lions are not eating salad and gazelles are.
I was recently told, and that’s what prompted me to write this blog, that talking of standards in a business ecosystem is basically invalidating the very idea of ecosystem! I disagree. We have standards in natural ecosystems, stemming out of evolution and adaptation. Flowers with a long chalice match with birds with an appropriate bill. This is standardization, one fits the other. They were not imposed, they just came to be that way and we still see them because they happen to find a mutual match.
Apple has not imposed a standard to the induced Apps ecosystem. By providing certain APIs they have implicitly generated a compliant world of applications. Those enterprises that are quick to adapt to the business environment are more likely to succeed and in turns this reinforce that business environment. If there are no lawyers in place, according to my definition, I call these environment ecosystems.
Ecosystems are the result of managing complexity through simplicity. And this is happening because beyond a certain level the effort required to manage complexity becomes greater than the benefit deriving from the management.
Complexity is directly related to the number of players and interactions but this is true only if you are looking at management as a centralized activity. If management is just a side effect of the interactions, e.g. there is no management in place, than everything becomes simple. Less efficient too, but if resources are not an issue because there is plenty of them and plenty may be disposed, who cares?
Engineers abhor from wasting resources, biology does not. As long as it is successful in passing on the genome that phenotype is ok.