Lessons from Science – Ecosystem

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 2.00.50 PMMy first qualification was in science, so long ago that if I wanted to work in that field again I’d have to re-do my degree. Not just for all I have forgotten, but also for the advances in chemistry, biochemistry and medical science. However there are a number of principles I learnt during my science degree which turn out to have business equivalents.

You’ve probably heard people talk about “Your IT ecosystem” or “social media ecosystem“. You may have wondered what a biological system, made up of cells and organism has in common with an IT system made up of bytes and cables?

The analogy turns out to be a good one, particularly in thinking about the interdependence of IT components in your organisation. In the arctic ecosystem for example it’s easy to see that a drop in the phytoplankton bloom will have an impact on the food supply for other animals for at least a season, and any loss of the multi-year ice will take longer to recover from.

Earlier this year I was asked to take our site off-line for six hours, so that another site could be edited and re-launched. The sites are hosted in the same place, use separate instances of the same content management system, but happen to share a database in a way that meant taking down my colleagues’ site would also mean taking down ours. It was an unexpected interdependence that we’ve now removed.

Sometimes the impact of a change is small, and if the population is resiliant – has alternative food sources for example – the effect may be minor. In an IT sense systems often have built in redundancy so that change will not have an impact.

Some impacts are epic scale and very difficult to recover from; eg destruction of ice at the north pole – loss of “multi-year” ice zone vs a successful hack on your site, which may be recovered easily from a technical perspective but the loss of data or reputation have a more sustained impact on the company.

You might use this model to understand IT or social media better, but remember – no ecosystem is closed. A small pond is affected by upstream events and so is your ecosystem. A change in process or conditions, a change in funding, an external impact all require fine adjustments within your ecosystem to withstand the impact.

Image Garry Oak Ecosystem in a Dewdrop /Evan Leeson/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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