What is a digital ecosystem? Not what you think

A popular buzz word misused

  • By Blaine Kyllo
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  • Feb 22 2016
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  • Categories: Articles

The word ecosystem has become a popular buzz word in the worlds of business and media. But it’s not being used properly, which causes difficulties for the senior leaders of companies. They often don’t consider the actual meaning of the term, and the improper understanding and use of it leads to costly inefficiencies and missed business opportunities.

I believe that words are important, and how we use them even more so. At the same time, I’m also a big believer in the evolution of language. That includes how we borrow words and terms from other places and find new contexts for them.

Literacy, for example, refers quite specifically to a person’s ability to read and write. Recently, however, it has come to refer to competency. Someone who is physically literate has the ability to move with competence. A financially literate person has the skills and confidence to make good decisions about their money.

The same kind of word borrowing has happened with ecosystem.

Maintain meaning when borrowing words

If we’re going to borrow words from other contexts, it’s important that the full meaning of the original word is preserved intact if possible, or at least carefully considered.

The word ecosystem comes from ecology. Oxford defines it as, “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.”

The American Heritage Science Dictionary gets more detailed: “A community of organisms together with their physical environment, viewed as a system of interacting and interdependent relationships and including such processes as the flow of energy through trophic levels and the cycling of chemical elements and compounds through living and nonliving components of the system.”

What exactly is a digital ecosystem?

People working in and talking about the digital realm have started adding ecosystem to their vocabulary. Here are two examples:

“… an online ecosystem of social games, music, shopping, microblogging, news, and movies…”

“… a commitment to print with the two digital networks being an amplification of its ecosystem …”

What these examples, and countless others, indicate to me is that people are using the word ecosystem to refer to the different channels on which they publish content. It doesn’t matter if they’re content marketing whizzes, UX gurus, or strategy wunderkinds, the ecosystem to them is simply the sum of the parts.

Knowing that each of these pieces is different is important. Channels can target specific audiences, for example, and different channels serve unique purposes. So understanding that each part of the ecosystem is a thing unto itself is critical.

But this definition misses the most important elements of an ecosystem: the connections between the parts, and the processes that describe and define those connections.

Ecosystems rely on connections

The temperate rainforest ecosystem in which I live is much more than just big cedars, the occasional bear, and clouds. The plants are a food source for some creatures, which become food for others. Bears, raccoon, skunks, and cougars are connected to other living things, which are in turn are connected to the geography and geology of the place.

In the same way, the content in one section of a website is connected to all other pieces of content through an architecture and navigation, through design and user experience principles, through business and user needs.

Consider a website for a telecommunications company.

There will be pages for products and services, which need to be connected so customers can conduct research on a new phone and then compare different data plans they might want to sign up for.

Customers having difficulties will need support pages, too, which should be accessible from the product page of their mobile phone. There may also be opportunities for the company to sell in additional services or products, so all of those pages need to be linked in some way.

The company’s presence on social media provides a way to extend brand awareness, serve existing customers, and find new ones. Connecting those channels to the website makes it easy to convert interest into transactions. Some telcos have divisions involved in the creation and distribution of media, which provide even more chances to connect customers.

All of these pieces are part of the ecosystem, but there is meaning and business opportunities in how those pieces are connected.

And just as the forest where I live would be changed if we were to take the bears out of the ecosystem, so too would the telco website be a different place if the product pages were suddenly removed.

Processes explain how ecosystem connections work together

How aspects of an ecosystem are connected is only part of the story. We must also understand how ecosystems are created and the ways in which the individual pieces are connected. The forest near my house didn’t just appear one day. It is a product of hundreds of thousands of years of life cycles and geological processes. There are also processes that define how the parts of that ecosystem work together.

The water cycle that includes the filtrating nature of soils, the trickling creeks, and the clouds that form on the windward side of the mountains is a process that describes the rainforest. The plentiful water makes it possible for salmon to spawn, and provides the growing conditions necessary for the multitude of flora that are native to the region.

Likewise, digital content has processes that govern its creation, evaluation, and maintenance. And there should be processes in place for digital teams to enhance and maintain the connections between the pieces of their ecosystem. This differs from the natural world in that an organic approach works great in nature. In your business, relying on organic processes is catastrophic. Content processes need to be planned and managed.

Not including or considering these processes when talking about your digital ecosystem means that you may be missing employee skillsets that are essential to getting the work done. Perhaps there are obstacles within your department preventing efficient governance of content. Maybe you are missing out on opportunities to leverage single sources of content across your ecosystem that you can’t see.

So when you talk about your digital ecosystems, make sure that you are referring not just to channels, but also to how those channels are connected, and the processes by which those channels are developed and maintained. Make sure that your employees and team leaders understand how important the entire ecosystem is.

Only then can you optimize your digital ecosystem and get it working better for you.

What’s your definition of digital ecosystem? Do you use the term differently? You can comment on LinkedIn or connect with us on Twitter.

Further reading

A 12-step approach to move from content chaos to recovery

Growing your business? Take a time out from content

3 simple things you can do to improve your content, and your business