Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Darwin, An Analogy for Internet Success?

I recently heard a "speech" in which the speaker quoted Charles Darwin and applied an analogy to the Internet. That is not in itself very interesting or suprising. What was interesting is that the speaker gave what he thought was a verbatim quote. It was not. As it turns out, the speaker may have had it wrong, twice, with the quote and the truth.

The speaker told an audience of young Internet professionals that Darwin did not say the 'strongest survive,' but those 'able to adapt' survive. He quoted, "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." His correction was also in error. This is not an actual quote but a summary or paraphrase of Darwin. Some scholars consider this common paraphrase a misreprestation. According to an article in Cosmos Magazine:

"These sentences do not appear anywhere in Darwin's work," said Patrick Tort, a Darwin expert at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris who said he has spent the last decade "combating the endless distortions of Darwin's ideas."

The analogy was meant to suggest that the Internet company in question can survive and thrive as long as it can adapt. This probably has truth, but maybe that is not the whole story.

The Cosmos article goes on to say that, "It is not the species that are most responsive to change that are likely to survive... 'It is the ones that are lucky, or already have the right features that can be passed on to the next generation.'"

If we accept this interpretation of Darwin's theory and apply it to this struggling Internet company it is far less uplifting, for sure. If we extend the analogy and view the organization as organism, it suggests there is (1) luck, and (2) attributes, possibly equivalent to institutional structure/knowledge/culture, at play. The people and the institutions both carry knowledge, biases and culture with them. I am suggesting these are the "features" or "genes" of an organization. These attributes may manifest in how the company makes key decisions, innovates, and conducts daily business.

This new analysis significantly strips away the ability to WILL success through pure adaptation. Much of the success is left to chance and the ability to transform an institution at its very deepest roots. In comparison, it is simple to change or "adapt" the strategy of an institution, but far more difficult to transform an institutions structure, knowledge and culture, unless that is part of the culture.

Through this new looking glass one would suggest that the Internet company in question will survive by the the benefit of (1) luck and (2) the already established institutional structure, knowledge and culture that led to its early success. Luck may manifest as an upturn in Internet ad-spend in 2010. If adaption is required, and that is part of that culture of the organization, then the company may have an additional fighting chance.

This new looking glass is most interesting when examining traditional media companies such as newspapers and TV. Do they have the right institutional structure, knowledge and culture to pass on to the next generation of journalists and succeed in a digital world? Do they have cultures that are comfortable with adaptation and change? Is luck on their side?

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