In this three part series, we're looking at what the phrase "ecosystem" means and how it applies to the IT industry. The term ecosystem is borrowed from the biological sciences, where it refers to a collection of living and nonliving organisms that are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. In Part 1, we applied the notion of living and nonliving organisms to a partner ecosystem. Next, let's focus on nutrient cycles and energy flows. In a partner ecosystem, these two systems for sustainability translate to two units of measure: one is money, and the other is influence. The two systems function separately, but in harmony with each other.
In a natural ecosystem, a nutrient cycle is a nice way of describing how the bigger creatures eat the smaller creatures. In partner ecosystems, the notion of the big devouring the small seems impolite at best and counter-productive at worst. In fact, the whole metaphor of an ecosystem arguably breaks down when a hierarchical nutrient cycle is applied to a network of partnerships.
But if we look at nutrient cycles as feeding systems, the metaphor becomes useful again. Even if the participants in an ecosystem are not devouring each other, they must find ways to feed each other. In the world of IT, money is the food, and if we can follow the money, we can watch the ecosystem in action.
In a traditional IT business model, with perpetual licenses and renewable maintenance streams, it’s easier to follow the money because “feeding times,” if you will, happen at regular intervals. Just as how bears scavenge campgrounds at roughly the same time every night, renewal license models based on long-term capital expense investments, will result in regular feeding times. And the resulting revenue flows are relatively simple to track.
But in a world of subscription-based licensing funded by operational expense investments controlled by a number of Line of Business managers, following the money is like following a cardinal, watching it eat small amounts all day long from a number of feeders scattered over a wide range of locations, and often sharing the feeders with several other species.
Nutrient systems imply that the participants feed each other. And certainly it is true that in order to sustain the partner ecosystem, every participant needs to contribute to the sustainability of the whole. And every participant needs to derive benefit from the system. So the members don’t need to be devouring each other in order to feed off of each other.
Energy flows in the natural world correlate nicely to the flow of content and ideas between influencers in a partner ecosystem. All participants are influencers to some degree, but analysts, online communities, and pundits are primarily focused on tracking and documenting the exchange of ideas between participants. These people and organizations facilitate the flow content throughout the ecosystem. How these participants get paid is independent of the flow of money that we follow in the “nutrient system” previously described.
Although energy ebbs and flows naturally, one of the challenges in maintaining a vibrant ecosystem is sustaining a high level of content flow. It’s easy to create buzz with a product launch or large event, but it’s far more challenging to sustain interest over time. To keep everyone engaged, the content exchange has to be fresh and relevant. Developer communities have demonstrated how sustain interest through constant innovation, candid online discussions, and a willingness to share content.
As the IT community moves from a traditional, in-house delivery of applications to a open, cloud-based delivery of integrated solutions, the ecosystems that support these communities must expand and transform. Companies like IBM need to move away from “feeding bears” and learn how to “feed birds.”