14 September 2012

Not Your Childhood Ecosystem

When I say “ecosystem,” people often imagine something like the following:
Source: Wikipedia, 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FoodWeb.jpg 

This is interesting to me because while the graphic is a nice illustration of a web (a watery, mountainous area food web in particular) it is not an ecosystem any more than a chore chart is an example of a family unit.

As many an ecologist will explain, ecosystem has less to do with lines pointing to things with descriptions of how they combine, interact or survive together and more to do with the establishment of a community as a whole. It is very much the same way we view our human communities. Remove the houses, cars and roads and you still have a community of people (though they are likely to rather grouchy from having their houses, cars and roads taken away from them). Remove the people though, and you are left with a museum exhibit.

While planning a presentation for a professional conference that my work was invited to present at, we hit this topic of ecosystem (I probably brought it up as I have been pushing to build an ecosystem instead of systems since my third day on the job). During this discussion I realized that most people’s idea of ecosystem (lines connecting different things) is far different from my idea of ecosystem (a, preferably tight knit, community that evolves together).

To others our recently completed projects were seen as systems (disparate systems) and processes (distinct and differentiated) with new projects to come as new problems were identified. To me, however, our recently complete projects are seen as parts of an ecosystem (highly connected components) and sustainable processes (automated processing that is scalable and thus sustainable) with new projects being identified as the ecosystem matures.

As I write this, I wonder to myself, “Why is an ecosystem so important to me?”

The answer is simple: competition.

My work stays in business because we can make a more compelling offer to our clients than our competition. This may seem obvious to some, but others get confused about things like having a superior product, having a superior set of morals or about delivering superior customer service. In fact, “ quantitatively superior" is hardly ever a key factor in winning over customers. Think of the last time you bought something because it was quantitatively superior (that is, the primary deciding factor was that the measurable facts showed that the product you bought was better than the one you did not) and not because it is qualitatively superior (that is, the primary deciding factor was not the emotional, mushing gushy side of you liked it more). Chances are that it was either a purchase made a long time ago or one that was heavily influenced by someone else.

We generally purchase things because we feel like they are superior rather than purchasing things that are factually superior. Cars are a fantastic example of this, most people would rather buy an SUV that is far less fuel efficient, costs more for insurance and maintenance because they feel safer driving them, they enjoy the thought of being able to haul more people and stuff than they almost ever do or they love the thought of being able to go off-roading even though we all know that their car is far too pretty for them to ever take it into the bush. The SUV feels superior though it is factually (for most people) far inferior than their needs.

Coming back to competition, creating a collection of factually superior systems is something that could be easily produced by the competition. They could even fake the systems by hiring gobs of workers to handle things and make it seem like things are automated. An ecosystem, on the other hand, that has a unified look, feel and functionality and “just works” for the client is much harder to reproduce (especially when reacting to competition instead of leading it). In order to remain differentiated from our competition and to provide that superior feel, it is in our best interest to try to integrate and unify these systems as much as possible in order to lead the market in the long term and to stay far ahead of the competition. Thus I cry, "build an ecosystem and they will come."

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