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The Network and the Natural World: Geoffrey Moore Meet Aldo Leopold

July 8, 2008 - 0 Comments

Alan S. Cohen, Vice President, Enterprise and Mid-Market Solutions, Cisco Systems

“œOur brains developed under the pressure of natural selection to make us great foragers, which is how humans have spent 99% of their time on earth. The presence of flowers, as even I understood as a boy, is a reliable predictor of future food.” — Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

Over the past two decades, the Internet yielded several well-documented network effects: computer operating systems and networking protocols, real-time communications, the”Internet of Things,” social networking, etc. Now we are seeing a new network effect: the network meeting the natural world.Former Cisco Product Line Manager Matthew Glenn took a long career in networking and combined it with a passion for photosynthesis to create and launch PlantSense (, a pioneering Internet company targeted to home botany. PlantSense provides a complete system starting with a physical sensor that is stuck into the ground to determine soil, light, heat, temperature and moisture conditions. The sensor has a USB plug-in that synchs with a web-based database and plant referral system as well as a social network for plant aficionados. Based on the sensor’s data and the geography (inputted as a zip code), PlantSense’s smart advisor prescribes which plants will thrive in that locale. PlantSense is sort of like a routed network for plants, but instead of computing the optimal route for a signal, it computes what will optimally grow. The network effect here is subtle, albeit very powerful: the restitution of generational, tribal knowledge -in this case, knowledge about which flowers, bushes and trees will flourish in your yard. My wife has a black belt in gardening — seeing our yard says it all — but she acquired her knowledge of our East Bay ecosystem over the past 10 years through trial and error, conversations with neighbors and visits to garden centers all around our region. Perhaps new business models like PlantSense suggest businesses can steal a page from the natural world?For a physically, socially and career mobile society, one of the most difficult aspects of building productive, innovative companies is not just the acquisition and deployment of talent and capital. It is the creation of a contextual working environment where co-workers share knowledge to accelerate each others’ business objectives.So how does knowledge-sharing manifest itself in business settings, especially those undergoing great change? How does context manifest within the organization when tribal knowledge at all levels and geographies become increasingly difficult to anchor or even find? How is insight shared inside a company where everything, including information, moves, seemingly, at the speed of electrons?Ultimately, collaboration tools must become a self-reinforcing platform for germinating the organic matter of business knowledge and insight. Whether these collaboration tools are communications technologies like VoIP or forms of messaging, or newer Web 2.0 community social or work spaces, whether they are delivered on-premise for the company or through the”cloud” (or both), they live to serve as fertilization of business processes, to support business results. Developing an organic and learning community, that rapidly adapts to changing organizational and business environments, is a vital contribution to the world of communications.Equally importantly, the advent of introducing practices from the natural world to the information, communications and technology market could yield other network effects we cannot comprehend today. The plant world introduced evolutionary models beyond those of Darwin’s The Origins of Species or even perhaps beyond those of Geoffrey Moore’s Dealing with Darwin. Humans conquered animals to gain supremacy, but plants, to a great extent, have domesticated humans, using physical beauty, scent, and texture to their competitive advantage. Indeed, through the ability to convert sunlight into sugar, plants changed how we eat, live and the shape of countries from forest to farmland to cityscape.Perhaps natural network effect companies such as PlantSense will help us understand how organizational”gorillas” are not the only approach to business evolution and adaptation. In the new world of IT, the end user increasing rules, effectively adapting management to new ways to communicate and work. Perhaps”botanic destiny” has some applicability to the world of business.Or, in the words of Michael Pollan (again from The Botany of Desire):“œWhile we were nailing down things like locomotion and consciousness, the plants, without even lifting a finger or giving it a thought, acquired an array of extraordinary-powers by discovering how to synthesize relatively complex modules.”

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