Enterprise 2.0 – Three Lessons from Biology 101

Biology 101 was among my favorite college courses, in part because of the beauty revealed by the microscope, and in part because of the amazing discoveries then emerging about living things and the way they self-organize.

I feel the same way today about enterprise collaboration; people in organizations are doing amazing, beautiful things with social media – delivering better health care, building better products, providing better services. And they’re doing it by self-organizing in exciting new ways.

Three of the lessons Bio-101 taught me about life apply equally well to E2.0:

1. It’s resilient. Life has colonized every possible niche on Earth; it thrives in the hottest, coldest and driest environments, even amidst flumes of toxic hydrogen sulphide in thermal vents miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

Enterprise social tools thrive in a variety of different industries and use cases, because they help solve a fundamental business problem. As economist Ronald Coase identified, internal transaction costs limit what’s possible for any organization. But social collaboration tools can drastically cut these costs, opening up whole new realms of profitable business. For example, people spend less time hunting around for “the person who knows the person who can answer this question” when you replace the old printed corporate directory with an internal social network where everyone has a profile page highlighting their skills and expertise.

2. It’s fragile. Many plant species disperse seeds by the millions, because there’s a tiny chance any given seed will grow to maturity.

Many factors can inhibit or doom social media initiatives within a particular organization – for a while. After all, some companies resisted telephones and email for years. So in addition to all the usual crap that can kill any project – budget cuts, a change in strategic focus, loss of a key champion, shifting political winds, personal conflict – social media tools are especially vulnerable because at this stage they’re so new that “you can’t prove the ROI”.

3. It’s poetic. Or more precisely, it’s autopoietic – it self-organizes so as to increase in complexity over time.

The overall tendency of the universe is toward entropy – greater randomness. Yet the very existence of life is proof that at least in some places, entropy doesn’t win – parts of the universe become substantially more complex, enabling increasingly autonomous action and coordination of action.

The same pattern pertains with social media, as Wikipedia and LinkedIn have shown. When companies use enterprise social tools like Socialtext to build people-based micro-blogging networks behind the corporate firewall, they’re doing more than adding another communications tool – they’re changing the way the people in the company self-organize. The result is an organization that lives and breathes and functions in new and better ways. And that’s beautiful.

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This post is part of the Enterprise Science series, which includes Enterprise 2.0 – Three Lessons from Chemistry 101.

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