The economic environment is a diverse ecosystem that, while threatened by ‘extinction events’ such as the banking crisis, endures and evolves; though clusters of strong ties exist, demonstrated by the domino effect brought about by the sub-prime lending fiasco, the ecosystem survives through loose couplings; minimising the risk of critical failure in a single component to the whole.
A recent article in Nature has thrown up some interesting findings that provides an insight into the relationships within complex ecosystems that, I would argue, have implications for the way we view/interact with/manage macro and micro environments. The original article by Allesina & Tang is available by subscription only, but an excellent review of the findings can be found here: ‘Predator-prey relationships make possible the rich biodiversity of complex ecosystems‘
Basically, the diversity of the system is founded upon three types of relationships: Predation (hunter-prey); Competition (competing for the same resources); and Symbiotic (Mutualism – relationships of mutual benefit; Commensualism – positive neutral (one benefits, without negative impact on the other); Amansalism – the opposite of commensualism, one benefits and the other is harmed; and Parasitism – the parasite benefits while the host is harmed).
According to Allesina & Tang the old thinking was that stability within the whole was maintained by symbiotic or competition based groups. However, their research, using mathematical modelling, has demonstrated that the key to stability exists within the predation relationships. The argument being that predators ensure that the population is maintained at a sustainable level.
Taking this a step further, symbiotic relationships stimulate the growth of populations. However, as the population grows competition will develop for the same resources, which, if not checked, will result in a choking of the ecosystem, resulting in instability. Predators, keep this in check, reducing levels of competition and regulating the couplings in the environment. As the number of prey increase, so do the number of predators; as the number of prey decrease, starvation sets in and we see a decrease in predators.
In looking at the predator-prey dynamic in organisations, it becomes interesting; especially using metaphor tools such as Arthur Shelley’s ‘Organisational Zoo‘. If predation is the regulating dynamic in organisations then what impact does that have on variety? Is it a simple case of survival of the fittest? Do individuals adapt, become more agile or dynamic, in order to survive the environment (gazelles, using Arthur’s metaphor)? If the population of dynamic, agile individuals increases then, according to Allesina & Tang, so will the number of predators (lions in Arthur’s organisational zoo metaphor). Does this make sense for organisations?
Going back to an earlier blog, I discussed the merits of Palchinsky’s Principles and, for me, this links to variation and selection; with variety, it makes sense to consider that predators act as the regulators for selections and so, I would argue, they ‘select’ by culling weaknesses in the system.
The counter argument could be that the weakness that has been culled could actually be the limiting construct that evolves the system. In organisational terms, this might see an individual being suppressed, their ideas stolen or even their separation from the organisation. My argument would be that they will either stay within the ecosystem of that particular organisation, adapt and become more dynamic or agile to survive, in which case they and the organisation benefits, or, death being a metaphor in organisations, they join another micro ecosystem with fewer predators and a greater chance of survival, or, again, perhaps they themselves have adapted, learning lessons, to better meet the needs of their environment – I can also see an argument for predation within Snowden’s ‘safe to fail’ approach, but that is for another blog.
I realise that, as usual, there are a number of arguments on complexity, ecosystems and the relationships that exist within the three strata. However, I would argue that the predation dynamic is one that could hold interest for those interested in complexity within macro and micro environments; it could provide also prove to be a valuable insight for those looking at systems design and management processes.