T214: Activity 5.6 Evolution of the ecology

My systems practice OU module is starting to get really interesting. The use of metaphors to explain situations has expanded to include an organic metaphor – organisations as organisms. This seems to work for me – probably better than the “machine” metaphor – as I think that most systems that involve people can be better explained this way. People don’t (or won’t) easily fit into a machine metaphor – decisions can be a bit erratic – and they are often swayed by changes in their environment, so perhaps if we imagine organisations to be more like an organism we can better understand how they work.

(By the way, I’m writing this as I’m thinking so apologies if it does make much sense…)

In my last assignment I attributed the downfall of Marconi to some very risky business decisions linked in with the unforeseen collapse of the telecommunications market. I could see how the “environment” affected Marconi – market conditions worsened making business difficult for our customers – but I didn’t consider how it could also work the other way; that our businesses could affect the environment.

This is where there is a connection between our organisations (us, even) and the theory of evolution. We have to adapt to our environment in order to survive – the most successful organisations have perhaps been the most successful adaptors – but our activities also affect our environment. In some cases we have also tried to change our environment in order for it to better fit our business practices (the entertainment industry comes to mind here).

The Internet age has made our world smaller (we are all better connected) and this should have made it easier to sell entertainment products (like albums and films) across country boundaries. Electronic downloads don’t care about postage costs or delivery mechanisms, but the old market conditions persist because they better suit the organisations that sell these things. For instance, different countries have different copyright laws and licence agreements with these organisations. I can’t buy electronic music from America because I’m in the UK – even though it may be cheaper there, although – perversely – I can buy CDs and DVDs and get them posted over here if I wanted to. This is an example of an organisation – or organisations – changing their environment to better suit there own needs.

I think that the telecommunications industry tried to do this too, or at least to set out some “rules” that would aim to guide how the telecoms environment would work. The industry as a whole colluded to create a set of standards that would allow different vendor equipment to talk to each other. This seems to me to be a good thing in theory, as it would certainly benefit our customers if they could have a mixed-vendor network. This was only a part of the environment, though, and it was only a partial success; if I remember correctly there was enough ambiguity in these standards that it was a rare event that you could happily connect two different vendor bits of kit together and everything worked as expected.

Telecommunications equipment is very expensive to design and make, making prediction of future customer requirements essential. If they get it wrong then billions can be (and have been) lost. If the environment changes unexpectedly then those with a wider scope of business are more likely to survive, making Marconi’s decision to sell off its defence business look foolish. Retrospect is easy, isn’t it? However, limiting your organisation’s exposure to only one part of the market environment was a risky venture and led to the demise of a century-old company.

The telecommunications business continues to change. Ericsson made me redundant because our biggest competitors were all outsourcing parts of their R&D business to the emerging markets in India and China. It’s cheaper to do this (apparently) and in order to survive Ericsson have had to follow suit. I can understand this, if not like it. I have had to adapt to the changing jobs market by switching to an IT-based job. I’m lucky that my skills enabled me to do that.

I’ve waffled on a bit here haven’t I? What was the question again?

Think about the sector/subsector your organisation is in, and how that has evolved over, say, the last 20 years. Was this in response to changes in the market, changes in society, or changes in technology?

The answer, I think is: yes, all of the above. Some unexpected, some not. All the telecommunications manufacturers were aiming to provide communications equipment of increasingly technological advancement in order to meet customer expectations. The market has gone far more towards the mobile side of things but I do remember people talking about this change all the way back in 1999. The telecomms market has been pretty organic, in that it’s had to change in a synergistic fashion with its environment.

Did I just type “synergistic”? I think I did. Sorry.