The nature of complexity? Predators needed!

The economic environment is a diverse ecosystem that, while threatened by ‘extinction events’ such as the banking crisis, endures and evolves; though clusters of strong ties exist, demonstrated by the domino effect brought about by the sub-prime lending fiasco, the ecosystem survives through loose couplings; minimising the risk of critical failure in a single component to the whole.

A recent article in Nature has thrown up some interesting findings that provides an insight into the relationships within complex ecosystems that, I would argue, have implications for the way we view/interact with/manage macro and micro environments.  The original article by Allesina & Tang is available by subscription only, but an excellent review of the findings can be found here: ‘Predator-prey relationships make possible the rich biodiversity of complex ecosystems

Basically, the diversity of the system is founded upon three types of relationships:  Predation (hunter-prey); Competition (competing for the same resources); and Symbiotic (Mutualism – relationships of mutual benefit; Commensualism – positive neutral (one benefits, without negative impact on the other); Amansalism – the opposite of commensualism, one benefits and the other is harmed; and Parasitism – the parasite benefits while the host is harmed).

According to Allesina & Tang the old thinking was that stability within the whole was maintained by symbiotic or competition based groups.  However, their research, using mathematical modelling, has demonstrated that the key to stability exists within the predation relationships.  The argument being that predators ensure that the population is maintained at a sustainable level.

Taking this a step further, symbiotic relationships stimulate the growth of populations.  However, as the population grows competition will develop for the same resources, which, if not checked, will result in a choking of the ecosystem, resulting in instability.  Predators, keep this in check, reducing levels of competition and regulating the couplings in the environment.  As the number of prey increase, so do the number of predators; as the number of prey decrease, starvation sets in and we see a decrease in predators.

In looking at the predator-prey dynamic in organisations, it becomes interesting; especially using metaphor tools such as Arthur Shelley’s ‘Organisational Zoo‘.  If predation is the regulating dynamic in organisations then what impact does that have on variety?  Is it a simple case of survival of the fittest?  Do individuals adapt, become more agile or dynamic, in order to survive the environment (gazelles, using Arthur’s metaphor)?  If the population of dynamic, agile individuals increases then, according to Allesina & Tang, so will the number of predators (lions in Arthur’s organisational zoo metaphor).  Does this make sense for organisations?

Going back to an earlier blog, I discussed the merits of Palchinsky’s Principles and, for me, this links to variation and selection; with variety, it makes sense to consider that predators act as the regulators for selections and so, I would argue, they ‘select’ by culling weaknesses in the system.

The counter argument could be that the weakness that has been culled could actually be the limiting construct that evolves the system.  In organisational terms, this might see an individual being suppressed, their ideas stolen or even their separation from the organisation. My argument would be that they will either stay within the ecosystem of that particular organisation, adapt and become more dynamic or agile to survive, in which case they and the organisation benefits, or, death being a metaphor in organisations, they join another micro ecosystem with fewer predators and a greater chance of survival, or, again, perhaps they themselves have adapted, learning lessons, to better meet the needs of their environment – I can also see an argument for predation within Snowden’s ‘safe to fail’ approach, but that is for another blog.

I realise that, as usual, there are a number of arguments on complexity, ecosystems and the relationships that exist within the three strata.  However, I would argue that the predation dynamic is one that could hold interest for those interested in complexity within macro and micro environments; it could provide also prove to be a valuable insight for those looking at systems design and management processes.

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  • http://www.cognitive-edge.com Dave Snowden

    Preditor-Prey is an example of a dual point attractor, and its certainly relevant to organisations. I think you are on to something interesting in terms of human capacity to escape from a constrained environment to create a new dynamic. That said, I think the more interesting attractors in human systems are the aptly named “strange attractors” which are better able to encompass language and the capacity for co-dependency between human systems even when they appear to compete.

  • http://knowcademy.com David Griffiths

    Yes, I can see where you are coming from here. If strange-attractor-meaning is spatial/temporal then perhaps symbiotic relationships are an appropriate comparison for discussion.

    My argument being that the human system will morph according to context (as the parameters/limits of the system changes); flexing between the four-dimensions of symbiotic relationships?

    Where I can see a problem is that there are various crisis-dynamics within SAs that I need to give further consideration to – For example, I can see where boundary-crisis can link with Parasitism (positive-negative…parasite benefits and the host is harmed), but I need to give thought to splitting-crisis or attractor-merging-crisis and expanding-interior-crisis. My initial reaction is that there might be an argument for Mutualism, through an environmental change (parameters being exceeded), giving rise to a bias in benefit towards one attractor that exceeds the limit of the relationship; resulting in a split and the evolution towards a new relationship, where the limits then align with one of the four dimensions of symbiotic relationships.

    Thanks for the input…really interesting dynamic to consider

    • http://www.cognitive-edge.com Dave Snowden

      Well there is an argument that all social symbiosis is obligate in nature rather than facultative , we then have exto and endo symbiosis which can both exist (at least those are the four dimensions I know about. I think this links with Dunbar’s work on language as a replacement for grooming in human systems. If I remember aright most symbiotes original as parasites and that model would apply well to human systems. I’d take up mutualism and add some of the Churchland’s work in Brain Trust to provide a more sophisticated explanation to create something more sophisticated that links to different sizes of social group – something that is badly neglected in organisational studies.

  • http://bounds.net.au Stephen Bounds

    Interesting article David, although I have some reservations. My comment turned into something far longer than seemed wise, so I’ve turned it into a blog post here: http://bounds.net.au/node/84

    • http://knowcademy.com David Griffiths

      Hi Stephen… I posted this on your blog also.

      First of all, thank you for responding to my initial blog.

      Where I would disagree is that we cannot deny the existence of the relationship categories; they are an established part of ecosystem science. Also, we, as humans, exist within the ecosystem and our actions change the limitations/parameters of the environment – for example, as the article I referred to stated, global warming. This draws us into what we can possible learn from these categories in relation to complex macro/micro organisational environments.

      For example, you said, “Logically it follows that if unchecked, organisational predators will eventually drive away everyone capable of leaving”. You are of course, correct, but it will also lead to predator starvation, as a result of the diminished population of prey – in natural science that would relax the environment enough to allow for the recovery of Competition and Symbiotic based relationships…in reality, allowing that situation to emerge, would mean that the leadership have ignored Palchinsky’s second principle; scalable failure…this in itself would change the limitations of the environment, resulting in new parameters.

      My other argument is that the predator-prey relationship is an important factor in considering variety-selection processes in organisations – taking the role of Predation in maintaining the stability of an ecosystem, it is possible to extrapolate a rationale for the same relationship being applied as a selection process in the attenuation of variety.

      The point I was trying to make in the blog was that these occurrences are a natural part of the ecosystem, they maintain stability, and therefore it is something that we should perhaps try and understand when we develop systems or when we reflect on management processes designed to regulate the environment.

      Thought provoking response though… Cheers

  • Tom

    Interesting article.
    I do, however, argue that we can’t compare the banking sector to natural science as that would – in effect – involve god coming down from heaven and bailing out the lions to maintain balance in the system.
    Even with divine intervention, the whole economy suffered severe economic downturn precisely because the ‘loose couplings’ attached to the banking sector dragged the ecosystem down with it.

    • http://knowcademy.com David Griffiths

      Hi Tom – I think you are taking ‘extinction’ too literally here – I am talking about ‘extinction’ events that can unbalance an ecosystem: Organisations built on strong couplings, such as in the banking crisis, fall like dominoes… at some point the couplings loosen and the system adjusts. Events, such as the banking crisis, threaten the whole system and, I would suggest, when it comes to agility and adaptive capacity, that we have lessons to learn from natural science – especially when looking to understand complexity and stability.

      Take a look at David Snowden’s comments on strange attractors in complex environments and the parallel with symbiotic relationships in nature…also the links between variety, selection and scalable failure.

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