Virtual Ecosystems — Just in Time

Conceiving of organizations as complex as well is complicated, has implications for those who are trying to help those systems move towards desired objectives. Complex systems are non-linear; that is, they do not function in “cause and effect” relationships, outputs are not directly proportional to inputs, and they are never static.

Instead, complex systems can be characterized by their patterns. In the Complexity Space, we characterize two different types of organizational patterns. The first are deep seated patterns which we call “ecosystem dimensions.” An organization’s history, context, and culture are not easily or directly changed.

Ecosystem levers, on the other hand, are shorter term in nature; they can be influenced more directly and the results seen more quickly. Changing organizational connections, increasing or decreasing the frequency and type of organizational experimentation, intentionally increasing or decreasing diversity, and moving beyond traditional, “top-down” leadership to “influence-ship” all focus on shifting organizational patterns of thought and behavior.

We have recently expanded our exploration of organizational ecosystems to acknowledge that they are virtual – that they occur at a particular place and time. An earlier essay expanded on the concept of ecosystems across geographic space. This essay will explore the “over time” dimension of virtual ecosystems.

Complex systems are always evolving, always merging. In fact, continuous change is a condition for complex systems survival. Without the continuous beating of our hearts, expansion and contraction of our lungs, shedding of old skin cells and the growing of new, human beings cannot survive. The continuous acquisition and integration of data, knowledge, and experience generated from both inside and outside the organization results in something that is different from even a moment before. These differences may be very subtle or might be profound – it is not possible to know with certainty where on that continuum the next changes will occur.

To gain a deeper understanding of organizations, then, is to ask the question, “What were the patterns of the organization at that point in time?”

An example may help illustrate this concept. I left external consulting to join Harley-Davidson as an internal 0D consultant in 1989. The company was stabilizing after a tumultuous decade which included a leveraged buyout and being five hours away from bankruptcy in 1982. The workforce had experienced massive changes, with the York, Pennsylvania facility shrinking from a high of approximately 1800 employees in the late 1960s to a low of approximately 120 employees in the late 1970s. An aggressive turnaround manager, coupled with a keen emphasis on quality, innovation, and the engagement of employees helped return the census to approximately 1100 employees in the late 1980s.

It was fascinating to notice the difference between those employees who had been employed at Harley during the “bad old days” and those who had been more recently hired.

New hires brought with them the ecosystem rules and norms from their prior organizations. In assembly line work that often meant “Don’t work too hard – you’ll make the rest of us look bad.” In those organizations, it was the role of managers and supervisors to maintain a focus on productivity and quality. At Harley-Davidson, however, an employee on the assembly line producing sub-par work was more likely to be not-too-gently coached by a fellow employee to raise their quality standards. Those veteran employees had experienced first-hand the impact on themselves and their coworkers of poor quality and they were not about to let those reductions in force happen again.

Another example. I was asked by another client to participate in a cross-group team to create a series of leadership training modules that could be used by all three groups within the corporation. After participating in working teams comprised of members of each of the three groups, I then worked with one of the corporate sponsors to harmonize those individual group efforts into a seamless set of learning experiences. As we socialized that harmonized work throughout the organization, I was surprised to hear from one of the groups that they anticipated it would be met with a high degree of resistance. In probing that response, I learned that the current group president had poor past experiences with the corporate sponsor I had been working with in doing the harmonization effort and did not like or trust him. “Because John was involved, it can’t be good.”

With the gift of hindsight, it is easy to see how changes in the organization’s ecosystem impacted both of those organizational patterns and results. Without the gift of hindsight, however, imagine how befuddling it would have been to have a “perfectly good” series of leadership training modules summarily dismissed, or to have assembly line employees have a higher demand for quality then their supervisors.

If you believe as I do that people behave in ways that are consistent with the best knowledge, experience, and history they have at the time, then “walking a mile in their shoes” and asking, “What was going on at the time?” may help to uncover the virtual ecosystems that help change agents more vividly understand the patterns – both past and present – that underlie the behavior of the systems they are trying to change.

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