At first sight, Wilding, by Isabella Tree, doesn’t have much to do with business and management. But bear with me. This compelling book tells the story of the extraordinary consequences of turning a large, long-established farming estate in West Sussex back to nature. The historic 3,500 acre Knepp estate had been in the same aristocratic family for centuries. Taking over in the 1980s, author Tree and her farmer husband, heir to the estate, enthusiastically did everything the farming textbooks and consultants told them: intensifying the inputs, investing in labour-saving machinery, betting the farm, literally, on scale. But with all the advantages of ownership, experience, and access to the best conventional advice that the owners could muster, on their marginal land (Susex wealden clay is a nightmare to work) they simply couldn’t make it pay.
So in 2000, at the end of their tether, they sold off their expensive farm machinery and dairy herd, stopped the losing struggle against the clay and began, amateurishly at first, the process of allowing the land to rest. At first, they just felt relief. But almost instantly, they started to see nature pushing back with astonishing speed. Starting with semi-domesticated parkland, then extending the experiment to other parts of the estate by bringing in ponies, cattle and pigs, all allowed to roam and breed free, the owners watched in amazement as soil fertility, plant and insect life, birds and mammal diversity exploded, making the estate an island of exuberant fertility among the surrounding swathes of agri-industrial monoculture – calling into question some basic tenets of ecology and conservation science in the process
And the relevance to management and business? Well, this year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum, management’s Davos (for which, disclosure, I do some editing), has taken as its theme ‘the power of business ecosystems’. This is an important milestone, for two reasons. It belatedly requires management to start thinking in terms of systems, which it has astonishingly managed to avoid up till now. And while business ecosystems are man-made rather than natural, they are based on the same kind of principles. Managers may not have realised it yet, but changing the ruling business metaphor from the machine to biology has the potential to alter the management's entire underlying philosophy. In short, it is a real evolutionary shift.
Although the idea has been around in the background for a decade or more, researchers are still exploring the concept of ecosystems, and there is plenty of interesting work still to do. In the meantime, however, and in no particular order, here are a few tentative thoughts on the implications for management that suggest themselves from Tree’s remarkable story.
Control...not. Evolution, as Francis Crick once said, ‘is cleverer than you are.’ You can’t control ecosystems. Apple may have been characteristically ahead of the game in thinking in ecosystem terms with the iPhone, but the platform only took off when Steve Jobs reluctantly allowed third-party developers on to the app store (they now number 500,000, contributing a total of 2.5m apps). In reverse, today’s intensive farming is Fordist, command-and-control agriculture. It sort of worked for a bit, but at only at huge cost – requiring huge volumes of artificial inputs (aka incentives) and pesticides and herbicides (rules and sanctions), all of which destroy diversity and the ability to innovate and change – and, like command and control itself, has now become the problem. Recent concern over soil degration only underlines the point. As Tree shows, agriculture is a classic case of the UK’s unerring ability to get the worst of both worlds – a supposedly market-based system that is so hedged around with the bureaucracy of regulation and subsidy that many farmers feel they have no choice what to grow on, or even do with, their land. Ironically, Knepp had to struggle to be allowed to do nothing.
Balance. The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. So ‘maximising anything is fatal for the balance of the whole system’ (Charles Hampden-Turner). It’s when balance is lost that things go wrong. Meaning that in a business ecosystem maximising shareholder value (or short-term land yields, for that matter) was always going to be destructive, and, like command and control, with its panoply of targets, KPIs and other measures unrelated to purpose, has to be abandoned.
Change. For conventional management, change is a mystery and a nightmare. It takes for ever and most of the time (70 per cent, according to HBR) it doesn’t work. But under ecological rules, change is natural, happens all the time, and, as at Knepp, can take place at astonishing speed. It’s just that it’s emergent – so while you can predict the direction of travel, you can't tell exactly where you will end up. The course wilding took, and continues to take, at Knepp has been a source of amazement and controversy to scientists, the owners and Natural England alike. Like evolution, of which it is obviously part, ecological change can’t be planned. But it can be observed, understood, learned from, and should be treated as normal.
Economy. Like any low-trust command-and-control operation, intensive farming is highly inefficient and costly as a system, both internally (bureaucratic, management intensive) and externally (obtrusive regulation, subsidies). One of the many surprises at Knepp has been the extent to which, the expensive artificial uppers and downers once removed, the ecosystem has become self-regulating. Without herbicides, ‘weeds’ have sprung up, to the great disapproval of townees who like their countryside trimmed and twee. But it turns out, from observation, that left to themselves farm and other animals use many of them for self-medication (another surprise for scientists). They already have a better, organic diet; together with the ability to dose themselves, Knepp’s cattle, ponies, pigs and deer are now largely vet- and thus expense-free, even when giving birth. The cherry on the cake, as it were, is that the solely pasture-fed meat is shown to be not only better tasting, but actually good for you, even the fat. Managing with rather than against the grain of the ecosystem is better, simpler, and lower cost, since there’s less of it.
Simpler; but – the sting in the tale – not necessarily easier. It's already clear that ecosystems will involve managing a richer and much more nuanced range of relationships than before, which may include both competition and cooperation in different areas, formal or informal partnerships, cooperative networks in which products co-evolve, sometimes even co-creation with customers. This won't suit managers who like things black and white, preferably in numerical form, and alpha-male CEOs who can't bear not to be dominant. But, hey, dealing with ambiguities and interpreting relationships are a large part of what it is to be human. It's called life. So they'll just have to get over it and start managing as if it, and humans, mattered.