Monday, January 21, 2013

Learn from Nature: Business in a Down Economy

The natural world knows how to conserve in lean times. Why shouldn’t we practice the same?

Namib Desert beetle leverages the power of attraction.

If you think your budgets are tight, take a look at Namib desert beetle that must find water in one of the driest environments on earth, how the tardigrade can survive for years without water, or how cicadas manage to survive without direct access to critical nutrients for most of their lives.

Nature has the tightest budgets of all and still finds a way to manage and even thrive. Here is a sample of nature’s genius that can teach us a thing or two about dealing with scarce resources.

The Namibian Beetle lives in one of the driest deserts in the world. The Namib lives on the southwest coast of Africa. It collects all of the water it needs from ocean fog due to the unique surface of its back. Microscopic bumps with hydrophilic (water-attracting) tips and hydrophobic (water-repelling) sides cover its hardened forewings, which it aims at oncoming fog each morning. Water droplets materialize out of thin air on its back, then slide down channels into its awaiting mouth.

Relating it to business: Develop a tailored strategy to create an affinity with the resources you need to attract. For example, if you’re experiencing a lack in creative talent, take a look at your work environment and organizational policies and see whether it is conducive to creative thinking, experimentation and collaboration.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in the forest.

In wetter and mixed-species interior Douglas-fir forests, Douglas-fir and paper birch (Betula papyrifera) trees can be linked together by species-rich mycorrhizal networks. This fungal network serves as a pathway for the transfer below ground of carbon from deciduous trees to regenerating Douglas-fir seedlings nearby.

This is not a one-sided relationship, though. Douglas-fir support their birch neighbors in the spring and fall by sending back some of this carbon when the birch is without leaves. This back-and-forth (mutualism) flux of resources according to need may be one process that maintains forest diversity and stability.

Relating it to business: Manage stocks and flows through a linked professional network. Acknowledge the importance of collaborators to growing and thriving with you and build resilience as a community through cooperative resource management.

Symbiosis works for the Cicada so it doesn’t have to.

Cicadas have a symbiotic relationship with two species of specialized bacteria that live inside their cells and produce essential nutrients that the insect finds difficult to access in its regular diet while living underground. (The Cicada spends most of its life -- from two to 17 years -- underground before emerging en masse at regular intervals). While underground, cicadas feed solely on the sap of plant roots, the most nutrient-poor and unbalanced part of plants.

Relating it to business: Partner with a complementary product or service for your business instead of expanding beyond your core competency or acquiring such businesses. Acquisition is costly and often disrupts business coherence. Partnership, on the other hand, allows for intense cooperation without the costly overhead.

Tardigrades are at the ready.

The water bear, an arthropod also known as a tardigrade, lumbers across moist surfaces of mosses and lichens. But when those dry up, the water bear goes into a suspended state that could last anywhere from a few months to a century. The key is the sugar trehalose. As water becomes scarce, trehalose inside the water bear loses water. Instead of forming sharp-edged crystals that can damage DNA, membranes, and cells, the sugar transforms into a glassy state. This sugar-glass surrounds the water bear’s molecules, protecting them from high temperatures and also preventing chemical reactions and denaturation. All it takes to revive the water bear is water.

Relating it to business: Don’t lose track of the good ideas and relationships that you still haven't been able to put into action. Develop a system for recording these ideas. Keep them ready to spring to life when the right opportunity presents itself. Good ideas and relationships are an asset that can be cashed in when the moment is right.

Paper wasps avoid expensive materials.

The geometry of a honeycomb -- seen in such structures as wasp nests -- allows minimizing the amount and quality of the material used to reach minimal weight with maximum functionality. A honeycomb-shaped structure provides minimal density and relatively high out-of-plane compression properties and out-of-plane shear properties.The geometry does the work, not the quality of the material.

Relating it to business: The idea is to take low value or off-the-shelf assets and rearrange them is such a way that the emergent outcome is of higher value. Look for critical connections between your assets that are currently viewed as being of low value both internally and externally: Novel arrangements and coupling of undervalued products, services and even people can result in the discovery of new functions and services.

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