Leaders Can Learn From Nature's Networks, UA Scholars Suggest
TUCSON, Ariz. – May 6, 2014 – Much of how we think about business today was shaped by the industrial revolution — 130 years before we put a man on the moon. Experts warn us that stagnancy is toxic, and University of Arizona scholars are responding, in part by offering new frameworks for thinking about organizations. One of the richest among these emerging models draws parallels between our organizational world and systems found in nature.
Stability Through Diversity and Nestedness
For example, two qualities often observed in stable, biological ecosystems are a high level of diversity — lots of different flora and fauna — and a high degree of redundancy or “nestedness,” which describes to what extent a system has players with overlapping roles.
Clover in a nearby field might be pollinated by five kinds of bees, butterflies, and beetles. One of those bee species might feed not just on clover, but also goldenrod and huckleberry. That ecosystem would be highly nested compared to, say, a tiny island on which three rare orchids are each uniquely pollinated by (and serves as the single food source for) three particular species of wasp.
These same qualities of diversity and nestedness can be seen in more stable organizational networks, suggest Matthew Mars and Robert Lusch, scholars at the UA’s Eller College of Management, and UA ecologist Judith Bronstein.
A sawmill, for example, might supply five paper manufacturers with pulp and three builders with lumber. Each paper company might work with a handful of mills as well as fabric recyclers, and each builder might source not just lumber but also reclaimed wood and composite materials. If any one of those companies disappeared, the system would carry on.
Unnatural in Important Ways
There are other ways in which our organizational ecosystems mirror those in the natural world, the researchers say. Both have key players — called “keystone species” among biologists — which, if wiped out, tend to collapse the system overall.
Also, just as in nature, organizational systems that function in one context may fail in another. The mill-paper-builder triad that thrives in one country might struggle in a country with different regulations, different social pressures, or a complex system of nepotism and bribes.
However, the researchers also note that there are important differences between natural and organizational systems. “Plant and animal ecosystems either function or collapse without conscious interventions from the species within them,” said Lusch, Professor of Marketing and Executive Director of University of Arizona’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. “People, on the other hand, can invest foresight to nurture favorable, supportive conditions in organizational ecosystems that already exist and those we recognize as they emerge.”
That idea itself points to a second key difference, said Lusch: “In nature, individual organisms act in their own best interest. When those actions harmonize with those of other species and the conditions are right, you can get a robust ecosystem, but the system itself is neutral — it’s not out to make the planet a better place.
“As humans, we make choices. Ideally we think about the big picture — not just in this moment but far into the future. As our organizational ecosystems develop, we can deliberately evolve them and adapt as conditions change.”
The Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona is internationally recognized for pioneering research, innovative curriculum, distinguished faculty, excellence in management information systems, entrepreneurship, and social responsibility. U.S. News & World Report ranks the Eller undergraduate program #11 among public business schools and two of its programs are among the top 20 — Entrepreneurship and MIS. U.S. News & World Report ranks the Eller MBA Full-Time program #48 in the U.S. The College is among the leaders of business schools generating grant funds for research. In addition to a Full-Time MBA program, the Eller College offers the 25th ranked Evening MBA program, the Eller Executive MBA and the Online MBA. The Eller College of Management supports more than 5,800 undergraduate and 750 graduate students on the UA campus in beautiful Tucson, Arizona, and a satellite campus in Phoenix.
Liz Warren-Pederson, Eller College of Management
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