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Business - Written by on Friday, December 18, 2009 9:57 - 5 Comments

Naumi Haque
Complexity and Wikinomics

What do a city, a forest, and your business ecosystem have in common? It turns out, a lot. All three are examples of complex adaptive systems.

Earlier this week I spoke at a conference hosted by the Royal Flemish Society of Engineers on the topic of complexity. The keynote speaker was Prof. Geoffrey West, former President of the Santa Fe Institute that pioneered the study of complexity science using a combination of economic theory and biology/physics (the founders were an economist and a physicist – both Nobel Laureates).  The end goal of complexity research is to develop new integrated conceptual frameworks for understanding the interdependence between various complex adaptive systems that define our world, including cities, financial systems, and the environment.

West’s research suggests we may be able to use the same rubric to study both cities, and forests, and maybe even economies. Complex adaptive systems share certain characteristics. Among other things, they: have many nodes, are interconnected, are adaptive and resilient, have many participants that create bottom-up disruptive change, result in emergent phenomena, and are often subject to unintended consequences. Sounds a lot like the type of emerging business ecosystems we talk about here on the Wikinomics blog. Collaboration between large groups of disperse and diverse individuals is extremely complex; when you add in financial systems, various incentives, supply chains, and a global information network, it becomes even more so.

West also talks about different types of networks—often layered on top of each other—as a characteristic of complex adaptive systems. The better we can understand networks and their interdependence, the better equipped we will be to understand complexity. He believes that underlying all complex systems are simple rules or patterns. For example, if you look at the metabolic rate, size, and lifespan of various organisms, you can determine that every biological organism grows in the same fundamental way. Here West asks some compelling questions: Are cities and companies just very large organisms satisfying the laws of biology? If so, why do all companies eventually die, while almost all cities survive? To this end, I think there’s probably great value in studying the evolution and “biology” of collaborative networks, informal networks within enterprises, business ecosystems, information flow and knowledge networks, and the multitude of other networks that collectively define Wikinomics-enabled business practices.

So, what are the best types of structures to deal with complexity? If we base our answer on how the Santa Fe Institute is structured, we find that the solution to complexity requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves participants that can bring different perspectives and diverse expertise. It also necessitates an open, distributed, and collaborative approach, a willingness to take risks, and a relatively small executive team that is able to meet face-to-face in order to build consensus and drive decision making at the highest level. This sounds remarkably similar to what we prescribe for next generation enterprises that want to thrive in today’s dynamic business ecosystems.

Another interesting thought at the conference came from Prof. Francis Heylighen who spoke of the Internet as a global brain that may act to combat complexity at a macro level by reinforcing strong signals between parties and building “synapses.” Tied to the he global brain theory is his theory of human stigmergya mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions (think of the way ants and other insects develop collective intelligence that enables coordinated and fairly complicated activities).

All of this is very much related to the research we’re conducting here at nGenera regarding what we call the highly-instrumented enterprise where actions are increasingly digitized, sensors and software track and analyze new sources of data, and create new understanding of complex systems and emergent phenomena. Some examples of these types of tools in a Wikinomics context might include reality mining tools that track the behaviours of individuals; automated sentiment analysis of text, voice, and even video; platforms that generate data and offer venues for consensus-building; and enterprise monitoring tools that map the informal networks and measure productivity within organizations. In fact, I’m sure there are many more connections to be made here, and look forward to thinking more about this one and hearing thoughts from our Wikinomics readers.


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Dec 18, 2009 21:47

This is a real nice post i also bookmarked your site and look for more updates.

Dec 21, 2009 8:31

If you like that stuff, you probably should also read Stuart Kauffman and his N/K network experiments. He comes up with some results about comparison between Stalinist totalitarian command economies and anarchic Capitalist economies. He also speculates about roles of corporations in that picture (a corporation can be seen as a miniature command economy floating in a sea of Capitalism).

May I also point out that historically, the design of a company was never intended to last forever. People would invest in a venture, then the venture would run its course and be dissolved and split up again (hopefully at a profit). These days we seem to have given up on the idea of an orderly wind up for a company when there is still profit to be had for the shareholders. Instead we run with this concept that somehow the company will go on forever, and must be kept alive at all costs.

Naumi Haque
Dec 21, 2009 14:28

Hey Tel – thanks for the tip.

I think you make a good point about the mortality of the firm. I wonder if this will change with more agile enterprises and continuous strategy processes, where one type of business doesn’t so much end as morph into another line of business. I keep hearing about this notion of the “miscellaneous company”–where resources are all on-demand and strategy is defined by opportunity–which might lend itself better to a lifecycle way of thinking about business.

Robert Bates
Dec 28, 2009 15:53

Great Post !

There are so many new perspectives on complexity that the information can be overwhelming and difficult to put into context much less practical use. I’ve heard many similar discussions around natural and business systems gravitating toward complexity. Studies on Biomimicry have also produced interesting models for manufacturing and self organizing systems.

In my best efforts to apply theory into reality I’ve found Dynamic Disequilibrium appropriate for many product and marketing lifecycles. Dynamic Disequilibrium Modeling: Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium in Economic Theory and Econometrics is a great primer, though the text is a bit expensive.

I look forward to reading more on this post and similar posts.

Wikinomics – Design charrettes for platform projects
Jun 29, 2010 18:38

[...] a stakeholder perspective. Complex systems result in more long-term unintended consequences (see Complexity and Wikinomics), so a project plan that maximizes feedback and expands options and scenarios earlier in the [...]

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