Organisms, Host-Microbiome Communities and Ecosystems: using metaphors drawn from the biological sciences for thinking about organizational entities and ecosystems

by Philip Boxer

A metaphor used frequently for an organizational entity is as an organism. A parallel metaphor is to think of an industry as an ecosystem, for example a digital ecosystem or a business ecosystem. These metaphors are used when speaking of the need to adapt appropriately to the changing nature of client demands, relating a supply side to a demand side. While these metaphors of organism and ecosystem refer to a supply side that is needing to adapt, however, they do not speak about what it might be on the demand side that is driving the need for that adaptation.

In pursuit of language that can address both sides, the attached white paper aims to examine two things:

  1. How does the symbiotic relation of host organism to its microbiome within an ecosystem provide a way of describing the layered complexity of an organism’s relation to an ecosystem that can capture more of the complexity of such digital or business ecosystems.
  2. What are the implications of using these metaphors that assume them to be living systems, each with its particular kind of behavioral strategy enabling it to be selected through being the ‘fittest’ within their environments.

In response to the first question, it turns out that the concept of ecosystem is best understood as a supply-side concept. In response to the second question, for an organizational entity or ecosystem to be understood as a living system involves its being able to anticipate and respond appropriately (adapt) to the changing nature of its clients’ demands within the real time of those clients.  The responses together mean an organizational entity or ecosystem being able to distinguish between the supply-side models used for responding and the demand-side models of its clients to which it wants to be responsive (selection).

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