What is a 'Business Ecosystem'

A business ecosystem is the network of organizations — including suppliers, distributors, customers, competitors, government agencies, and so on — involved in the delivery of a specific product or service through both competition and cooperation. The idea is that each entity in the ecosystem affects and is affected by the others, creating a constantly evolving relationship in which each entity must be flexible and adaptable in order to survive, as in a biological ecosystem.

BREAKING DOWN 'Business Ecosystem'

In the 1930s, British botanist Arthur Tansley introduced the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe a community of organisms interacting with each other and their environments — air, water, earth, etc. In order to thrive, these organisms compete and collaborate with each other on available resources, co-evolve, and jointly adapt to external disruptions.

Business strategist James Moore adopted this biological concept in his 1993 Harvard Business Review article “Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition” through which he paralleled companies operating in the increasingly interconnected world of commerce to a community of organisms adapting and evolving to survive. Moore suggested that a company be viewed not as a single firm in an industry, but as a member of a business ecosystem with participants spanning across multiple industries.

Advances in technology and increasing globalization have changed ideas about the best ways to do business, and the idea of a business ecosystem is thought to help companies understand how to thrive in this rapidly changing environment. Moore defined the business ecosystem as “an economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organizations and individuals — the organisms of the business world. The economic community produces goods and services of value to customers, who are themselves members of the ecosystem. The member organisms also include suppliers, lead producers, competitors and other stakeholders. Over time, they co-evolve their capabilities and roles and tend to align themselves with the directions set by one or more central companies. Those companies holding leadership roles may change over time, but the function of ecosystem leader is valued by the community because it enables members to move toward shared visions to align their investments and to find mutually supportive roles.”

In effect, the business ecosystem consists of a network of interlinked companies that dynamically interact with each other through competition and cooperation to grow sales and survive. An ecosystem includes suppliers, distributors, consumers, government, processes, products and competitors. When an ecosystem thrives, it means that the participants have developed patterns of behavior that streamline the flow of ideas, talent and capital throughout the system.

Ecosystems create strong barriers to entry for new competition, as potential entrants not only have to duplicate or better the core product, but they also must compete against the entire system of independent complementing businesses and suppliers that form the network. Being a part of a business ecosystem provides mechanisms to leverage technology, achieve excellence in research and business competence and compete effectively against other companies. Some other goals of a business ecosystem include:

  • driving new collaborations to address rising social and environmental challenges
  • harnessing creativity and innovation to lower the cost of production or allow members to reach new customers
  • accelerating the learning process to effectively collaborate and share insights, skills, expertise and knowledge
  • creating new ways to address fundamental human needs and desires
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