Organizational Ecosystems

This is a concept that is actually really simple. Organization has a root word: organ. So does organism. This shared root is not accidental. In this case, and organ is an entity with a specific function.

You are an organism, and inside your body you have organs. Your lungs are meant to do something different than your heart is. But they both work together. The larger system of your body has sub-systems within it that work together to promote life.

Organizations are similar. The development department does something very different than the marketing department, but they work together with other departments and staff members and roles to further the overall mission of the organization. Because the scale of an organization is larger than that of an individual, it can be instructive to view the organization as an ecosystem within other larger ecosystems.

Mapping your Ecosystem

When looking at an Organization as existing in an ecosystem, we are looking at two different ecosystems.

The first is an internal ecosystem composed of various staff, the board, members, students, and other stakeholders who are already actively engaged in the work of the organization.

The second is the external ecosystem of the community in which the organization exists. That could include nearby businesses, other organizations who interact with or do similar things as yours, potential students/clients/members, funders, etc.

Similarly to natural ecosystems the different stakeholders in the internal and external organizational ecosystems exchange resources, information and services between one another.

These stakeholders and resource flows can be drawn out physically as a diagram or map.

In a natural ecosystem, the health of that ecosystem can be measured by the extent to which the exchange of resources is reciprocal, or can be said to exist inside a 'closed loop'. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

Examples of closed loops in a natural ecosystems

Example 1

  • A human being breathes in oxygen, and exhales (as waste) carbon dioxide.
  • At the same time, trees and other plants are 'breathing' in carbon dioxide, and 'exhaling' oxygen.

This exchange can be said to exist in side of a closed loop.
This loop doesn't have to be direct.

Example 2

Let's take the case of a mulberry tree, and bird, and the soil (which is a whole community of a lot of micro-organisms).

  • A bird eats the mulberries from the tree, and as she is eating them passes the digested mulberries onto the ground (and into the soil) as waste.
  • We say "yuck", but the micro-organisms in the soil say "yummy", and they eat the waste of the bird, and in turn create their own waste.
  • Which is lucky for the Mulberry tree, because it's roots cannot uptake the waste from the birds directly. They have to be eaten, digested and excreted as waste by the micro-organisms before their little root hairs can absorb them.

Without these closed loop exchanges, an ecosystem cannot sustain itself.

Closed Loops in an Organization

Identifying and closing resource and information flows within your organization can uncover opportunities and alliances that were otherwise invisible.

Mapping Works

It works in large part because instead of going over the same issues in your mind over and over again and personalizing them, you are putting it on paper, and are able to see a birds eye view that was not available before.

When you view the resource flows from this perspective, it becomes very apparent which of them is not working.

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