The company as an ecosystem

Guest contribution by | 04.04.2018

Get out of the linear way of thinking – we need cycles!

Recently, my New Work filter bubble has been talking about “the ecosystem of companies”. What’s going on? Was the lobbying of the eco-activists successful or did the vegan faction infiltrate my filter bubble in such a way that suddenly tofu animals graze happily where usually fattened indicators in mini cages vegetate? What exactly does it mean for the development of companies that the word “ecosystem” finds its way into a conventional, efficiency-driven economic context?

Development must be measurable

In very simplified terms, business development is a long-term process of expansion within a company’s lifetime, involving progress and regression due to competition. According to our western understanding, development is charged with a value, i.e. it is always associated with an understanding of improvement – with each step of development the company becomes stronger, bigger, more efficient, more adaptable. This development is viewed and measured in comparison to past performance and in comparison to other companies perceived as competitors. The majority of this comparison is purely quantitative, based on earnings figures and arbitrarily set ratios. Exact measurability is an indispensable factor in this development logic.

Business Development in the New Work Age

Corporate development in the New Work age involves a respectful attitude towards the human factor. The human factor moves into the centre (wherever it may be), one acts at eye level (even with physical differences in size), finds talents (which can also lie outside of professional competence). People and companies are addressed as organisms. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

New Work newcomers to workshops often describe the alternative concept of “old work” with the term Taylorism and, analogously, the time of the industrial revolution with assembly line work and mass production. This picture summarises about 150 years in 2 sentences – forget about it. Quickly the speech about “the” industrial revolution comes up, although there were indeed several. And then it is often explained that the human image in Old Work corresponds to a machine and that the machine is awakened as an ideal.

Much more interesting is what is not said. How could it be that this mechanistic conception of man was so readily accepted and implemented? Wasn’t man always an organism and not a machine? Did someone stand in front of the factory workers and say “From now on you are machines”? Probably not, but this idea met with a Zeitgeist that had long since internalised this image socially and culturally. So it was easy to carry it into the industrial factories of the time. Why did that happen?

The Zeitgeist of the Second Industrial Revolution

The spirit of the 18th/19th century was that of a love of technology in which most people – especially the middle classes, the new elite – saw a golden future in machine progress. With a little imagination we could draw an analogy to today’s AI and Silicon Valley euphoria. This belief in technology contained a promise of prosperity and advancement that made it highly attractive. Perhaps this alone would not have been critical, but this promise of prosperity entered into an ominous alliance with the Christian religion. This was not a new phenomenon, even in earlier times the alliance of capital and church provided for exploitative practices of any kind.

The Rock Star and the Eternal Fight for Survival

The rock star of the time was Darwin and the narrative of 19th century society was the “improvement of man and his environment”. The phrase “Survival of the fittest” has unfortunately remained in many minds to this day. It was assumed that evolution would continue in a linear, perpetual struggle and that an improved species would emerge from each battle won. The Christian religion adapted – as always – to the changed cultural situation and recommended to “subdue the earth” and to understand nature as a landscape to be cultivated.

In addition to this, the new capital-strong elite propagated a religiously oriented puritanical life hostile to the body and the lust, which strictly rejected every human characteristic that did not fit into the conservative grid and tried to repair it with a doctor. Renunciation and self-mortification made man a good, godly being (see also: Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber). Attention, human beings meant men. Women were still highly defective beings whose brains were only capable of thinking to a very limited extent, whose wombs wandered around in the body if they were not regularly pregnant (see clinical picture hysteria) and who had to be brought up by the man for discipline and order, often by force. Easily digestible education was reserved only for the “higher daughters” and served exclusively the purpose of being able to entertain the future husband. Signs with the inscription: “Women must stay outside” hung in front of the universities.

Fortunately, there were many intelligent women who made necessity a virtue and satisfied their desire for education elsewhere. They also saw a need for action with regard to the desolate social conditions and organised and moderated regular private events – so-called “salons” – for the frustrated creative industry. Writers, bohemians, intellectuals, philosophers, wealthy factory owner sons and daughters, precariously living artists discussed new future scenarios of a peaceful and social society with classical music, alcohol and drugs. The thoughts from these salons also wandered into the plans of those who actually cared about the “social question” of industrialisation and did not put an end to the predatory exploitation of the workers and their families, but at least mitigated it.

Everything’s better today. Really?

Why am I telling you about this past? It is over, isn’t it? The patriarchy is passé, equality is even in the German Grundgesetz and we have already left the church, haven’t we? We decide largely self-determined and the living out of our own individuality is right at the top of our todo list of life goals. On the surface this is certainly so. If I look deeper, however, I see that much of this time has been reproduced in our heads over generations – with changed framework conditions. One may rummage in one’s own head and see which pictures from the past described above can be found there. Or visit a Helene-Fischer concert and have a look around.

From the machine to the organism

Increasing concern with the “social issue” has led to many good developments for employed workers in enterprises over the next century. The legal regulations such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Codetermination Act and the General Equal Opportunities Act are only rudimentarily mentioned here. Since the 2000s, the social question has led from shareholder value to stakeholder value.

Since then, the idea of machines has also evaporated, the promise of prosperity has cracked and the plant “organism” begins to germinate cautiously. This is accompanied by the realisation that man is not a “human resource” whose skills documented in CVs can be called up profitably at any time, but that a living person has more than his professional abilities at his disposal. One can hold a carrot in front of his nose and in phases he follows it, but often he doesn’t at all. Then we think about the meaningfulness of our own work, about the design of individual life phases and about time out from work.

This organism model is about adaptation to the framework conditions. Framework conditions that make a “good life” possible. And that brings us back to Darwin. The current understanding of the “survival of the fittest” is the “survival of those who adapt as well as possible”. This means adapting to (changing) conditions in which the individual, the group, is in his/her respective phases of life. This understanding does not automatically include competition and thus struggle, but can just as well exist in cooperation or symbiosis. Thus, it is not about a linear improvement, within an isolated process logic, but about an intelligent and healthy adaptation to and in existing systems, which change in cycles, in cycles and in phases.

Sustainable management as a logical consequence

The viable enterprise of the future is therefore an ecosystem in which organisms like to be in a certain space for a certain time and are productive. At the same time it is permeable to adjacent systems, observes them and reacts consciously, tactically and attentively. Sounds insanely simple, doesn’t it? And it is simple, because such companies have existed for a long time.

It’s not just the New Work companies with their self-organisation models and participative decision-making processes. Since the 1970s, the demand for sustainable, ecological development and the critical tendencies of a globalised economy have been addressed in the course of the environmental protection movement (e.g. “The Limits to Growth”, Meadows/Randers/Behrens, 1972) and has been mainstream since the energy turnaround at the latest. Social fairness and ecological action are not only the hallmarks of an entire eco- and organic sector; the idea of corporate responsibility is also increasingly being heard. Since it has become clear that climate change is not an idea of ecospinners, but has serious economic consequences, it is only logical that a triad of economy, ecology and social issues should be consistently implemented across the board in everything that companies want to call themselves in the future.


In these new ecosystems, individuals need an awareness of their effectiveness. This is only possible if they are able to act self-determined in many respects. This means that every element in an ecosystem is a complex organism that has an implicit, possibly unconscious knowledge of the whole and can react quickly and tactically when situations and conditions change without damaging surrounding systems. This in turn means that the economic sector cannot only look at itself, but must also observe its interactions in the environment and society. This requires a constant exchange between the various sectors and their actors in order to move from linear monoculture competition into a circulatory ecosystem of competition, cooperation and symbiosis in the long term.


Notes (in German):

Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: Grenzen des Wachstums:
Deutsche Gesellschaft Club of Rome:
3sat: Vernetzte Pflanzenwelt:

Daniela Roecker has published more posts in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: The Discovery of Sustainability

The Discovery of Sustainability

t2informatik Blog: Sustainability and open source

Sustainability and open source

t2informatik Blog: Corporate sustainabilty

Corporate sustainabilty

Daniela Röcker
Daniela Röcker

Daniela Röcker accompanies companies in the context of digitalisation and sustainability as an organisational developer and consultant with the Kultur-Komplizen. Her goal is to create circumstances that enable employees, leaders and teams to implement changes on their own. One of the tools she uses is "culture profiling", which she developed herself in 2019 and which is being iteratively developed further together with practice partners. The Kultur-Komplizen are involved in the core team of #EntrepreneursForFuture Region Stuttgart.