Interactive Panel Discussion on Ecosystems and the Challenges of cooperationBlog

by Stuart Wigham

The subject of Ecosystems was central to this year`s EODF conference. It’s ‘on-trend’ currently in the Organisation Design world. The panel discussion aimed to address issues of cooperation in the ecosystems space. This is a real issue when we have competitive mindsets within our business environment.

For me, I struggle to differentiate between ecosystems and whole systems theories of organising. I am not convinced that there is much difference between what we already know and the current buzz word of ‘eco’ that has entered our business vernacular in recent years. None the less, organising within a whole system conceptualisation of the organisation(s) is difficult. The addition regarding ‘eco’ is that co-dependency and interconnectivity not just in the boundarification of the organisations work but, by extension ideas and shared resources that we use to interact between each other. This is particularly so within knowledge work where is it often difficult to completely pinpoint the exact point where an output leaves the organisation and is taken on as an outcome received by an external entity.

To help gather my thoughts about the panel discussion I noted down some keywords that the panel members used as part of the opening of the discussion, these are as follows:
• Fear
• Separation
• Power
• Telling
• Trust
• Chemistry
• Mind, Heart, Stomach
• Shared understanding

The panel was given a limited scope at the beginning of the discussion which I feel may have limited the possible conversations that happened. The delineation of ecosystem was the interrelationship between the External/Internal consultant, the relationship with HR and Business working together. For me this could and should be extended further to incorporate the customer, supply chain, interconnectivity between employees as service providers as well as service users, similarly applying this thought processes to any of the connected parts. The key question here is does coexistence matter? And if it does, what does it actually mean? When one considers ecosystems in terms of our ecological environment there are lifecycles, predictors and prey which are cyclical. Ecosystems are literally by nature made up of life and death cycles which feed and create a sustainability in our living system. I felt that this point was missing from the discussion, if we are to understand ecosystems within the context of sustainability of the firm(s) then the logical conclusion is that in order for the whole to function there is a lifecycle to pay attention too. We have known for a long time that organisations exist within a context of needing to reinvent themselves or, rebirth in order to survive.

One of the panel members made a useful point about the positioning of the issues being binary and this being constructed for simplicity sake in our own minds. This is true, we separate in order to categorise, to label and then alter, process, or somehow change and create something new or addition to that which we began with. However, the issues of binary thinking cut to the core of the debate as to what is or isn’t organisation design. Can you design an ecosystem? Here we are into the realms of power and control and, what is or isn’t the role of the Organisation Designer? This was hinted at within the panel although never called out explicitly. I cannot remember the last time I heard anyone suggest from within the EODF community that Organisation Design is something someone does in isolation to an organisation. For the most part the community is aligned on the value of co-creation of the firm. To what end is the issue with ecosystems, there is no end at all if it is truly an ecosystem, it operates in perpetuity regardless of the winners and losers, by nature it is amorphic. In order to design something, there is action, this is a form of power that is exercised over another entity creating some change. This can occur through collaboration and agreement (which most of us agree is the best approach) or through dictatorial means and imposition (or some combination).

Now, if we take the position that value cocreation and collaboration is the way to go, then it still leaves us with what is actually to be designed in the context of organisations and ecosystems. If we are designing then we are creating boundaries in order to define the organisation. In doing so we are creating separation between entities in order to create a design. Design is a scientific and artistic endeavour. This brings me back to the question of what is being designed. Surely if one is paying attention to an ecosystem then you are sympathetic to others outside of the boundary you have defined and wish them well. Well enough to support them beyond the traditional supplier/customer relationships, aka shared understanding of the problem and shared ownership of finding the solution to a shared problem. Does it go beyond this? If I am designing to support an ecosystem then surely my suppliers problems are mine as might be my competitors problems be also? Here we are back to the issue of boundary definition, how far will I go to support the ecosystem. If I choose to focus on my own organisation does this mean I am essentially inflicting self harm to myself through the lack of support of the ecosystem? This cuts across regardless of the positioning of the panel discussion, notions of external and internal consultants, HR and business working together are all fine, however at some point there is a boundary to pay attention too. Regardless of the mechanisms used, for example a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ or a signed contract there is mutuality of understanding of what the problem is, who the players are and what roles they play in resolving whatever problem has been defined.

I was left wondering if designing for cooperation within an ecosystem context is really about positioning one’s own organisation to be the ‘keystone’ that all have some dependency on. This is a type of perpetual reasoning principle of organising, the notion that your aim is to explicitly and deliberately connected to the whole through design choices and actions which lead to self-perpetual existence.
I am left still wondering about ecosystems, do they matter or are we just reinventing the wheel and putting new tires on stuff we already know? Either way, the best way to leave a discussion and conference is to leave with more questions than answers, it means you’re living up to the notion of continuous learning… within the ecosystem… if you define it as such…

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