The future of business – beyond the existing paradigm
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have achieved great feats of economic, social and technological advancement for which, as a species, we can be proud. Yet the challenges (and opportunities) now facing our businesses, economies and societies are all too apparent. These include:
- volatile input costs
- volatile prices
- volatile consumer buying patterns
- increasing complexity and risk in supply chains
- changing demographics, world population shifts
- shift to a multipolar world
- increasing socio-economic/political tensions
- increasing scarcity of finite natural resources
- increasing propensity of food and water shortages
- increasing frequency of natural disasters and epidemics
- climate change
- peak oil, peak elements, and so on
- ocean acidification and dead zones
- rapid decline in biodiversity
- increasing inequality
- rising world poverty
- increasing mental health issues and stress-related illnesses
- exponential growth in population and consumption rates.
Neo-classical economic models and traditional business management theories are being challenged amid this intense period of discontinuous change, with multi-disciplinary adaptive economic/business approaches designed for volatile business landscapes gaining interest – such as natural capitalism, evolutionary economics and ecological economics; likewise for organizational development approaches – such as the learning organization (Senge, 1993), the emergent organization (Kiuchi, 2002) and the living organization (Wolfe, 2012); likewise for business leadership approaches – such as the ecology of leadership (Hurst, 2012) and emergent leadership (Capra, 2003).
This increasingly unpredictable, interconnected and uncertain nature of business askes for a more emergent, dynamic, networked approach to organizations and leadership; a new business paradigm emerging which challenges our prevalent approach to business. The Harvard Business Review recognised in its special issue entitled ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’ that traditional leadership approaches and business strategies are now unfit for taking us into the ‘new norm’ of increased volatility and continual adaptation.
The answers to our pressing challenges are all around us – nature has been dealing with volatility and adaptation for over 3.8bn years. The more we explore the new mind-sets and models needed for successful future business, the more we realise that organisations need to be thought of more like living organisms than machines.
Ecological principles can act as guidelines for how nature works and how ecosystems develop resilience. These same ecological principles can help reshape our organizations and economies. Inspiration from nature can be applied to business at all levels within their strategies and operations.
Places: intelligent buildings that sense and respond to their environment are effective, vibrant and healthy places to work. Also, the forms and structures used in architecture and design are increasingly bio-inspired.
Products: biomimicry (mimicking nature) is already well established in assisting sustainable product design, as well as form design.
Processes: industrial ecology and symbiosis, systems thinking, eco-literacy, closed loop economics and cradle-to-cradle form part of a growing list of approaches for shaping business processes through applying insights from nature.
People: traditionally the domain of psychologists, more and more we find nature’s inspiration positively influencing how we engage, empower and encourage our people to build resilience within their diverse stakeholder group. For example eco-psychology and natural leadership are emerging approaches to help business people deal with complexity and unpredictability.
Purpose: some forward thinking businesses are realizing that ‘reaching beyond zero’ means becoming restorative and net positive, where business creates conditions conducive for life, rather than merely reducing the harm inflicted. Restorative business missions can take inspiration from nature when exploring and applying strategies for success in seeking synergy with the natural world.
Yet applying nature’s inspiration to a business context can be fraught with challenges and is not always straight-forward. Just as the field of nature and biology is wide and deep, so too is the field of business management (covering many schools of thought – economics, psychology, sociology, for instance). Recent applications of nature’s inspiration to business management point to a fusion of nature/human nature approaches, challenging our very relationship with ourselves and all of life.
Business is on the cusp of a paradigm shift. Nature may act as a deep source of wisdom to help this paradigm shift amidst volatile times. Gaining inspiration from the ecology of natural systems, re-establishing our connection with nature and seeking to apply ‘nature’s inspiration’ to business may be helpful in our paradigm shift towards a business paradigm fit for purpose for the world we now live in.
We live in interesting times. Now is the time for business strategists, leaders and innovators to think radical, think outside the box, and see the world of business as living and emergent, not static, machine-like and predictable.
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