Biology and Business – Does a deeper understanding of the life sciences matter?


Biology and BusinessWe use nature as a model all the time, both consciously and unconsciously. From Velcro to drug design to social Darwinism, biomimetics permeates our lives. Nevertheless, I don’t think many boardrooms take their inspiration from the latest research in the life sciences. Few imagine their firms as living organism, and recognition of ecosystems seem to be focused on input/output rather than symbiosis and mutual dependency. Process analysis tends to be simplified and mechanistic, ignoring the lessons of nature.

I think the biology classes – full of slimy petri dishes and frog dissections — have left executives feeling squeamish about turning to nature for ideas. It all seems too messy. But if they ignore the insights that are tumbling out of life sciences, they could be left behind. Here’s a short guide on what to look for:

Decision models – Stop looking at computers and start looking at brains. Brains have spent millennia adapting to the real world, and we are beginning to understand how it acquires, processes and combines information. Charlie Rose did a fascinating series on the brain. (The site appears to be down, but some is on YouTube.) that is filled with new concepts to ponder. Or, if you want to stretch yourself, look at how the immune system detects, learns about, acts upon, and remembers threats.

Performance – Much is being learned about attention and awareness. Lighting, movement, variations in consciousness (such as rest), distraction (for good or ill) can be used to structure the workplace, time decisions, and organize meetings for more productivity. Of course, the use of performance drugs – from caffeine to amphetamines to alcohol – is already in the mix, and research is both providing deeper understanding of the trade-offs and pushing the limits of these.

Boundaries – Membranes, skin, cell walls, and plaques: One thing nature knows how to do is create separations and manage what goes in and what goes out. Since much of the success of businesses is tied to who is “in” the business and who is “outside,” to keeping secrets and sharing information, and to bringing resources in and releasing products and services, there is real value to finding out how nature handles boundaries. This has become even more acute as we have formed virtual teams, outsourced operations, made our information systems accessible to the world, and blurred the line between competitors and collaborators.

Strategy – The shape of our ecosystem is driven by interconnectedness and survival requirements. This has created an amazing variety of approaches that are models for strategic choice. Many of these are far beyond the imaginations of MBAs. Will my genes have a better chance of surviving if I have many offspring or a few that are well cared for? Do I have a better chance contributing to a community that works together or going it alone? Should I invest in being flashy or blending in? Nature is filled with examples and the biologists have catalogued these and provided details on what contributes to their success or failure.

Connecting the dots between business and nature can be difficult, as with membranes and the immune system, or easy, as with many examples of insect organization and defense. But many answers and opportunities are out there, waiting to be discovered.

So don’t be afraid of the squishy stuff. You are made of squishy stuff, and so are the people you work with. A deeper understanding of the life sciences and the lessons they offer can lead to new ideas, improved efficiency, and better ways to respond to change.

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