Organic Business Networks

October 11, 2010
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I was having a conversation the other day with a colleague about trends that are impacting and driving change in businesses and as often happens lately we ended up on the subject of business networks. When discussing new concepts we have no choice but to apply words that have existing, accepted meanings, even if those terms don’t quite fit what we’re trying to say, and add other adjectives to help translate the picture that you have in your head to mutual understanding.

I was having a conversation the other day with a colleague about trends that are impacting and driving change in businesses and as often happens lately we ended up on the subject of business networks. When discussing new concepts we have no choice but to apply words that have existing, accepted meanings, even if those terms don’t quite fit what we’re trying to say, and add other adjectives to help translate the picture that you have in your head to mutual understanding. For the last few years, as I’ve focused my research more and more on emerging trends in the enterprise, I’ve found this task very challenging. Using the word social in some business context for example, is fraught with issues as people try to shoehorn their own understanding of the word into some new frameworks. The word network, I’ve learned, is another ambiguous term when used in a business context. It seems that the word’s techie baggage, while appropriate to some extent in understanding where I’m trying to go with this idea, causes some confusion. The challenge then is to find the right adjective(s) to start to move people in the right direction, or perhaps, even though it’s not my favorite activity, delve into a more detailed definition of business network.

The problem with the word network is also part of the strength of applying it to the current emerging business environment. From IT networks that are flexible, scalable, configurable, fault tolerant, accessible from multiple points and on multiple devices, we can borrow concepts that businesses need to begin to apply more broadly. The downside I think, to using the word network is that when many people hear the word they start to think of the physical connectors, the Ethernet cables and routers, etc. that make up the LAN or WAN and that’s very limiting. Or perhaps they think of it in terms of the social web, which can also be distracting even though again some of those characteristics apply.

Sitting in the Philadelphia airport early this morning in one of those inviting white rocking chairs they provide, sipping a cup of tea and prompted by the sight of so many people connecting and carrying out business, I had an idea. When I think about business networks in the context of all of the other technical and cultural change factors that I see in our post-industrial information economy, maybe what I mean is “organic business networks”. The word organic could be confusing though, but when I think about it in this context I am thinking that it has similar traits to organic computing. Organic computing is a computing system that is self-optimizing, self-healing, self-configuring and self-protecting. More broadly organic models are generally patterns and methods found in living systems used a metaphor for non-living systems. So applying an organic model, organic business networks are networks that represent the interconnectedness of the emerging information business environment. Organic business networks connect people, data / information, content, and IT systems in a flexible, self-optimizing, self-healing, self-configuring and self-protecting system. People are the primary nodes of the network but the other nodes, data, content, applications and systems, are no less important.

A business functioning as an organic business network would incorporate the characteristics of a social business, as I listed here, but go beyond this basic idea, using social business as the operational paradigm but using the organic business network as the mode of operating it’s business. The two concepts play off each other, social business is the “what” and the “organic business network” is the how. An organic business network lets the business work outside of traditional “firewall” boundaries and is the continuously adapting implementation of an optimized business strategy. In this approach value creation can move to the optimal point in the network depending on strategic influencers like economy, market dynamics, customer behavior, prospect behavior, partner behavior and needs, supply chain dynamics, predictive business outcomes, etc. An organic business network driven company is the anthesis of a hierarchical, rigid, reactive, process constrained, and silo’ed organization. Instead the business can adapt to changing conditions, leverage assets effectively and thrive in a hyper-connected, global competitive, information driven environment. What do you think, does that add a little clarity?

Organic Business Networks