The Link Between Biology and IT - Page 1

Apr 3, 2007

Mike Scheuerman

At first glance, biology might not seem to have a lot to do with IT, but when you view an organization as an organism or ecosystem, you can learn a lot about how to deal with change.

In biology the response of an ecosystem to change has one of three outcomes: 1) the system adapts to the change and thrives, 2) the system rejects the change and ossifies or 3) the system can’t adapt and dies.

So, how does that lesson apply to IT? IT is, for better or worse, the change agent in many organizations. One of the risk factors in initiating change is understanding the rate of change the organization can absorb. The old story about the frog in water is illustrative: If you put a frog in cold water and heat it up gradually, the frog will stay in the water until it cooks. If you drop the frog in hot water it will jump out.

The same thing happens when you introduce change in an organization. If you gradually introduce the change and let everyone get used to it in small increments, the change will be more likely to be accepted. But if you try a "big bang" and change everything at once, people get uncomfortable and odds of making a successful change go down.

Another risk factor is letting change get out of hand. Take the example of cellular growth. It's a great thing to have. It helps the organism replace dead cells. It provides the organism with additional resources to support a larger, more robust structure. But what happens when the cellular growth gets out of hand? We call it cancer.

Taking Control

Planning for controlled change is crucial to successful growth for both organizations and organisms. Putting governance mechanisms in place to control change will keep wild undesirable growth from sucking the life out of your company.

Change is a positive thing for many environments. Take the pond scum example. Your backyard pond is probably not the most attractive thing in the world when it’s covered with algae. So you change it by getting the water to move which inhibits the growth of algae.

You add a little base or acid to improve the pH of the water so the coy don’t die. But you do that with a little planning because to much or too little will unbalance things to the point where desirable pieces of the ecosystem die off. Working with and involving all the affected parties in planning change will make that change more likely to be a success.

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