Over the past 30 years the term “ecosystem” has gained substantial popularity. Originally coined as “business ecosystem,” it was used to describe clusters of companies that coevolved capabilities around new innovation. Using the construct means seeing your business in a wider economic system and environment.
For most private and public organizations the ecosystems in which they reside are of major importance. Their success is determined not only by what they do themselves but also by their ability to relate to what others are doing and by finding new ways to contribute to the larger system.
Therefore, collecting data about the ideas and activities within relevant ecosystems might well be worth the effort. In this article, I describe consecutively:
the ecosystems in which the Province of South Holland, my organization, is active;
how we, within the province, tried to gain more insight into ecosystems;
and the potential business value for different types of organizations.
The importance of ecosystems is widely recognized within the Province of South Holland. Our tasks, all related to the quality of the physical living environment, can only be carried out in collaboration with other public, semi-public, and private organizations. These organizations are part of our ecosystems and we value them as such.
On a practical level, this means that most of my senior colleagues and all of our political executives are heavily involved in all sorts of interorganizational groups. These groups range from informal temporary working groups to formalized government agencies on all sorts of topics.
Many of the conflicts typical for the physical environment, such as when a new road cuts through a nature reserve, are resolved within these bodies.
Yet, despite the high relevance of all this, our collaborations are often only known to the colleagues directly involved. The most effective way to stay informed is by attending meetings and by talking to colleagues at the coffee machine, a method that doesn't look too advanced in 2023.
To realize public value, the province must understand the different ecosystems in which it operates. Assuming that these ecosystems are larger than the total number of collaborations we cultivate, we ideally would have methods to gather data about the whole ecosystem, and not only about our partners.
At first glance, it seems that this type of information can be obtained with the resources and platforms already available, such as ERPs, CRMs, LinkedIn, and social network analysis. The problem, however, is that these are built on a foundation of the formal organization, individual employees, personal contacts, or simple relationships between organizations.
Usually, these solutions are limited to one’s organization and its direct partners, leaving much of the ecosystem out of scope.
Since 2019, I have been trying to understand the province's ecosystems and the ways to capture these. One of my lessons learned is that it is impossible to determine the size of ecosystems. Not only because they are constantly changing in participants, scope, and direction but also because an ecosystem can never be described from one perspective.
To capture ecosystems, the solution must therefore have an unlimited scope and include the perspectives of as many organizations as possible.
Starting in 2022, we have developed an open social platform for organizations, on which groups, especially interorganizational groups, are allowed the opportunity to create accounts and present what they are working on.
Each group uses it to share knowledge and experience with colleagues and peers. At the same time, social traffic on the platform produces network effects in the form of data about ecosystems.
As the platform is about to implemented, we hope that the data it generates will help the leadership of our organization in making smart and informed decisions about the initiation, continuation, or termination of activities. Not only in light of the political priorities but also ideas and activities within the broader ecosystem.
The theory of ecosystems was initially developed for the world of innovative business, not government. Its premise was that knowing the ideas, ambitions, and capabilities of other players in the ecosystem would result in more successful business strategies.
Given the success of the theory over the past decades, one might argue that there is real value in ecosystems data. The approach we chose, namely developing an open platform where interorganizational group activities are openly shared to a large degree, is only one of many ways to collect ecosystems data.
Our method, developed in the context of the Dutch regional government, is tailor-made for an environment where organizations do not compete, where collaboration is the norm, and openness is seen as a political virtue.
For the world of business, other data strategies might very well be better suited. And given the relevance of ecosystems data and the lack of business applications that can deal with it, there is definitively room for new ideas.
In the world of enterprise data, it is hard to identify new needs and new opportunities. One area where data is conspicuously absent is the world of ecosystems. Given the value of ecosystems data for business strategy and the lack of applications that can deal with it, it might very well be worth exploring it as a new data trove.
About the Author:
Margo ter Bekke works as a data strategist for the Province of South Holland, part of the Dutch government. South Holland is the most populous and most industrialized province of the Netherlands and includes the cities of The Hague and Rotterdam.
Recently, the organization won a Zero Distance Award 2023, awarded by the Business Ecosystem Alliance, for its efforts to work more on social issues, and for the associated efforts to gain insight into its ecosystem.
Margo is an engineer and studied System Engineering, Policy Analysis, and Management at the Delft University of Technology. She was previously accredited as Certified Business Intelligence Professional (TDWI) and in 2021 graduated with honors for the Certified Government CIO program (powered by PTI, USA).
Last summer she presented at the 17th CDOIQ 2023 in Boston with the title ‘Building data intelligence about collaborations, networks and ecosystems.’