Review: It's a Small World After All

By Paul B. Brown  |  Posted 06-16-2003

It's Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology and Business
By Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis
Crown Business, May 2003
288 pages, $27.50

Predicting the future is dangerous work. Where are all those flying cars and housekeeping robots we were promised back when we were in grade school? Looking ahead even ten years in the future is risky. Need proof? Think back to 1993. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone predicting back then that e-mail would surpass the phone as the business communications medium of choice.

The authors of It's Alive—Meyer, the former director of the CGE&Y Center for Business Innovation, and Davis, a consultant—readily concede that the future may not unfold exactly as they envisage. Be that as it may, they claim that a coming melding of biology, information technology and business will spawn new ways of doing business over the next ten years. The early signs, of course, are already here (genetically engineered food springs to mind). While no one knows exactly how the convergence will play out, the authors argue that the process will closely resemble evolution—by which they mean natural selection of the most environmentally fit characteristics. Only in this case, they say, the evolution will occur at warp speed.

If they are right, the question for managers becomes "what skills will my organization need to survive?" It is clear you will need to create what business gurus have taken to calling "an adaptive organization," one that has the ability to evolve quickly in response to changing conditions in the business environment. Among its characteristics:

Self-organize. Give employees rules governing how to make decisions, rather than telling them what to do.

Recombine. Encourage collaboration as the means to exchanging new ideas.

Sense and respond. Think of the "congestion charging" under way in London, where video cameras record the license plates of cars entering the city's central zone on weekdays, and drivers are charged a toll.

Learn and adapt. Think Amazon.com. If you bought a murder mystery last time, odds are it will suggest a new murder mystery to you the next time you sign on. And if your second choice was written by a woman, the next suggestion will be a murder mystery written by a female author.

Seed, select and amplify. By this the authors mean testing multiple responses to potential changes in the market, picking the ones that work best and expanding them quickly.

Destabilize. The term the authors use to describe breaking down all the systems that keep an organization from producing quick responses. Cumbersome systems take too long to adapt to changing environments.

The goal: to make your organization more responsive to changing market conditions, no matter what happens tomorrow. That is a good thing.

Will the future go the way the authors think? Will computers be powered by the energy stored in molecules? Will you be able to access a personal software program designed to keep you constantly updated with the business knowledge you need? Who knows? What is clear is that the economies of the future have always been shaped by innovations of today, so paying attention to the growing interdependence of IT, biology and business is a good idea.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown, the author of 14 business books including The Map of Innovation: How to Create Something Out of Nothing (written with Kevin O'Connor), just published by Crown Business. Please send comments on this review to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.