Social networks and organizations: on ecosystems and organisms

Coral Reef Ecosystem - Source Wikipedia
Coral Reef Ecosystem – Source Wikipedia

Recently, I had a brainstorming session with a team of managers regarding social media, touchpoints and content mapping. As I tend to do, I often used terms such as holistic and ecosystem. One of the managers looked at me and asked if we really had to use such ‘social buzzwords’. He was right to challenge me. Always speak the language your customer/audience speaks, right? However, terms such as holistic and ecosystem are not buzzwords.

Since I use them a lot, I would like to explain why I do and what they mean. Because they can actually make you look at your marketing in other ways.

Many years ago, I worked with the CEO of a company to help him write his biography. As a former engineer, he used many scientific comparisons to describe his business views: physics, biology, etc. One of the terms he used was ‘ecosystem’. He started explaining what it was, but I told him I used the word often as well. In fact, many people do.

As an advocate of continuous learning and looking at business from a more ‘holistic’ perspective – again that word – I encourage marketers to have different views on what they do, including concepts and viewpoints from various ‘sciences’.

On ecosystems

The term ecosystem stems from biology. When looking up the exact definition, I stumbled upon a web page for…children. I liked the definition so much that, I used it. “An ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources, habitats and residents of an area. It includes plants, trees, animals, fish, birds, micro-organisms, water, soil and people….Everything that lives in an ecosystem is dependent on the other species and elements that are also part of that ecological community…When an ecosystem is healthy, scientists say, it is sustainable. This means that all the elements live in balance….

There you have it, ecosystems for kids. A business is an ecosystem. It also lives in an ecosystem. I will refrain from comparing marketers to plants or sales people to animals or vice versa. Some might but I hate generalizing.

To me the word organism, another one I will tackle below, is important. As are ‘people’, ‘dependent’, ‘community’ and ‘balance’. I guess I do not have to explain how you can use the comparison of an ecosystem in a business, marketing and social network context. Because it is about ecosystems and people.

We are social and relational. An ecosystem becomes a living organism and an entity by itself. From a business comparison viewpoint, it is about consistency, the value chain, relationships and the purpose of the ecosystem and its organisms: being healthy for all participants and in balance with surrounding and overlapping ecosystems.

Yes, it is about the customer and the survival of your business by aligning the purpose of the individual element and that of the ecosystem as a whole.

On organisms

Do forgive me but for this term, I will refer to Wikipedia as I like the description: “In biology, an organism is any contiguous living system…In at least some form, all types of organisms are capable of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, and maintenance of homeostasis as a stable whole.”

In this definition, several words matter to me, here are a few:

  • Contiguous: connected, neighboring, in touch, etc. Indeed, it’s again about relationships but at the same time about the ability of growth and development. An organism needs space to develop itself in relationship with other organisms, just like coral. However, some organisms can also be destructive to the ecosystem. See how it relates to business and marketing? It even relates to education.
  • Living: an organism is alive. That’s obvious.
  • Homeostasis: this is a very important term. Homeostasis is the tendency of an organism and of micro-organisms such as cells to regulate their internal conditions, leading, among others, to adaptive reactions and the agility (agile business…) to maintain an equilibrium when external conditions change. However, when conditions change, organisms must also find a new equilibrium. The Darwinian ability to adapt is crucial for a business that wants to respond fast and in an agile way. I guess this needs no further explanation.

On holism

The term ‘holistic’ means related to wholes, instead of dissected parts. I often use it to describe a view of the customer across all interactions, preferences and touchpoints. It is frequently used in a medical context nowadays, and I use it in that context as well. Holistic medicine does not distinct between what we call body and mind. It looks at symptoms and even diseases as warning signs that something is wrong with the organism as a whole. A simple example: when it’s hot, we sweat. That’s homeostasis: the process of finding an equilibrium when external conditions change.

In business and marketing we all too often look at symptoms and dissected parts while ignoring the wholes. We use silos, look at little pieces or traits of our customers and treat symptoms rather than the cause of the diseases that hit our ecosystems. We need to do both: look at the micro-level (including the interactions) and the whole, with different layers in between.

You can compare what many businesses do with a dam that suffers from increasing water pressure. When the pressure gets too high, cracks appear. In business, we often react by putting band-aids on these cracks, but we don’t look at the causes of the rising water: the reasons why we can’t find an equilibrium in which all organisms work together to have healthy ecosystems. We often choose short-term solutions and quick wins and fixes while ignoring the holistic dimension.

Why does all this even matter, you might ask? Isn’t it just intellectual masturbation? Maybe. However, I don’t believe so. I think these views can help us solve many issues. I think we should look at ecosystems and thus divisions, organizations and social networks as living ecosystems. I think we should look at things from both a micro-organism and holistic viewpoint, while outlining the relationships between the organisms.

On (being) social

Joël de Rosnay
Joël de Rosnay

If you don’t like this post because it’s not practical enough or indeed intellectual masturbation, please stop reading now. If not, do continue but you are warned.

In 1999, I talked a few times with Joël de Rosnay. Joël is, among many other things, a French biologist and futurologist. In 1995 he wrote a book, called “L’Homme symbiotique”. The company I was working at, translated it in Dutch. There is also an English version.

When I interviewed him, he explained how he thought people would become part of an ecosystem, a network of human and other beings, technology, nations, computers and much more that would ultimately become some kind of global super organism which he called ‘the cybiont’.

According to de Rosnay, we were standing at the verge of a revolution whereby we would evolve towards this planetary super organism. For him, it was the inevitable next step in the survival of our species. We moved from cells to organisms, from organisms to populations, from populations to ecosystems and next to the planetary super organism. In it would be all human beings, organism, machines, networks and even nations. It wasn’t a denial of the free will of the human being, which de Rosnay rather saw as the facilitator of the cybiont and the shaper of the form it would take. His plea was one for a less ego-driven and more symbiotic world of participation.

His vision, which has been both applauded and criticized, for me overvalued the role and potential of human beings in the ecosystem called earth. And I doubted if technology would be used to reach this ideal.

I think analytical thinking and complex systems thinking can both work together to look at reality from various viewpoints. It’s important to understand the interaction of each organism, the relationships it has and the living ‘whole’ ecosystem.

However, I shared Joël’s views on the coming of an era in which people would become part of a network that connected us all, be it from a different angle. I also shared his view on the coming of “the Internet of immaterial things”, which is now becoming a reality.

But most of all I believe that we form the social networks and are the social networks. However, at the same time we fight the social dimension and the survival of the ecosystem, and the homeostasis since we want to do more than survive in symbiosis. But that’s not a question of biology; it is one of psychology, the analytical way.

We could say de Rosnay, as many others, predicted what we are seeing today and call the social media revolution. It has a profound impact on the ecosystems we call organizations and on the individual organism. However, I don’t feel it will lead to a ‘super organism’’ that will make mankind survive.

But, then again, de Rosnay, said it was up to us. And I’m not a futurologist.