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The forest vs. the terrarium — The Daily PPILL #103

There is a lot of talk lately in the Channel circles about ecosystems. Some think that they are the newest must-have model for any company to succeed.

I would argue that the channel has always been an ecosystem. Partners have always used complementary products, and vendors had a variety of partner types as well, each fulfilling a specific role in the channel. The real big difference today is the degree of integration, and that vendors are now realizing how many partners play complementary roles in the sales and solutions delivery process, which is making them move away from the “one opportunity, one partner” mindset.

In addition to this, the most important difference is how vendors are attempting to foster the creation of these ecosystems and in some cases control them, in contrast of just letting them develop on their own. Once they recognize that ecosystems are necessary to thrive and that they are not part of one, they hastily rush to try to create one.

Ecosystems get created in one of two different ways: on their own, or planned. The first approach is what has been going on for a long time. You provide maybe one important piece of the ecosystem, you create the conditions around it for others to attach to it, and you let it play out.

All the talk about ecosystems today, is the second approach, where ecosystems are painstakingly planned out and each participant is carefully groomed. In this sense, today’s ecosystem thinking resembles that of a terrarium, where the type of soil, the level of humidity, and each plant has been designed into it, and then, we place a lid on it.

As in many cases, there is much to glean from what happens naturally.

If there is something that we can learn about natural ecosystems, is that:

  1. Every member, every participant come to the ecosystem to occupy a niche that is open for them to take.
  2. In stable ecosystems, there is a balance of power. If one member of the ecosystem is eliminated by some external force, the whole ecosystem to get disrupted until someone occupies that spot.
  3. In real ecosystems, even predators have an important role in keeping populations in-check at any time.

This is where designing an ecosystem can get very tricky. Remember that last step of the terrarium model? We placed a lid on it! We closed out the ecosystem, we closed out other entrants and we called it “done”. Why? because we like static things that we can understand, and especially predict. The bad news is that this model is eventually prone for some kind of invading species to come in, and we don’t prioritize resiliency over immutability, we are going to experience significant disruption.

As published on The Channelmeister



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