One way to characterize information's relative place in the world, or in the business world, is as an ecosystem. A supply chain may seem too linear, and even a supply network too static and procedural for today's and especially tomorrow's more dynamic business environment. Indeed, supply chains or networks change and increasingly run pseudo-autonomously on business logic, on embedded analytics, and always on communication among stakeholders. But do they really evolve? Do they really sense, and respond, and adapt to both immediate and gradual shifts in the larger environment the way that biological ecosystems do? Only if someone coded them that way. When someday we witness an entire supply chain driven by a neural network, a form of machine learning, then perhaps. But maybe we should be conceiving and planning for that day. Already, certain players, in certain supply chains, manage and store much of the information flow. Think Walmart, or Coca-Cola, or as Don Keough, the former president of Coke once said, "Whoever has the information fastest and uses it wins." It's probably something Sun Tzu once said too. Keiretsu are the renowned Japanese corporate ecosystems formed around trust, sharing, collaboration, and coordination. Today, with companies like Walmart, and Coca-Cola, and Amazon, we're starting to see the formation of information Keiretsus. These ecosystems enabled trusted partners to readily share and use one another's information. My colleague, Regina Kasonato, has referred to this type of arrangement as "information without borders." Whatever we want to call it, the behavior of information within, and among these entities, resembles something flowing, or even thriving, within an ecosystem. So what can we learn and apply about ecosystems to the discipline of information management? What is an ecosystem exactly? Well, an ecosystem is defined as a system, or group of interconnected elements formed by the interaction of a community of organisms within their environment, or any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts, as in a business. Sticking for now with the classical biological definition of an ecosystem, describes a community of organisms along with the inanimate parts of the environment such as air, water, sun, and soil. Ecosystems are defined by how these components are linked via nutrient cycles and energy flows, and how these components interact with one another. So which of these roles does information play in an information ecosystem? Well, we could characterize information within an ecosystem as either a resource or even an organism. Which one do you think makes the most sense, is the most useful, and why? Consider information as an energy source or resource. As we've discussed, many questionably clever pundits refer to data as the oil for the 21st century. Michael Saylor, founder and CEO of the business intelligence vendor, MicroStrategy, throughout the early two thousands repeated his catchphrase, "Information like water." These comments make sense, information fuels business processes and businesses themselves; it's a lubricant for commerce; and it's fairly abundant depending on one's climate and topology. It can be collected, and processed, and stored, and it can even be bought and sold as a commodity. The problem is that both of these metaphors place dubious limitations upon information, disregarding its unique economic characteristics, as we discussed earlier. Perhaps a more compelling, non-obvious, and admittedly provocative way to think about information within an ecosystem context, is as an organism itself. As the central actor in the ecosystem. One could argue that information germinates, or is born, survives, and thrives, and replicates, combines, and evolves, and is affected by climate and typography, and sometimes even decomposes, and is recycled. Of course, few of these activities information does on its own. Information doesn't have DNA within a program to tell it how to behave, given certain stimuli. Not yet anyway. But there's a day coming, I believe, in which metadata will play an active role like DNA does. For the moment, information today is programmed from the outside. Further supporting the metaphor of information as an organism, let's not forget that viruses can infect data, not just biological systems. Indeed, most of the industry had been using the term information ecosystem somewhat casually. This is par for the course throughout much of the IT profession. We use many related terms like value, and asset, and life cycle, and management, without much of a common understanding throughout our organization or industry. Examining the range of classic biological ecosystem concepts can yield ways to adapt them for explaining the world of information a bit better. Classic biological ecosystems involve certain actors or entities, have a range of features and processes, are influenced by various events, and are often managed by humans. An information ecosystem can be classified to describe similarly, in terms of ecosystem entities, features, processes, influences, and management. Let's take a quick look at each in the context of information. In a biological ecosystem, the main actors are organisms, organic matter, nutrients, and energy. If the biological ecosystem is named for biology, the study of organisms, then it follows that our information ecosystem model with center on information. Other items within the biological ecosystem include organic matter, nutrients, and energy, and resources including air, water, and soil. In the information ecosystem, we're concerned with the bits and bytes that comprise information matter, or the individual units of information that make up a data set. In the information ecosystem, we're concerned with resources such as processing, storage, and bandwidth, and of course energy, just the same. What provides nutrition for information? Let's say transactions or other kinds of events do. We'll get to how these nutrients support growth in a moment. Now like they're biological counterpart, information ecosystems involve networks of interactions among information organisms within their environment. It may not be natural to think of information as interacting, but that's just what happens during look-ups and searches, integration query, updates, and reporting. These involve interaction among disparate data sets such as a sales transaction and a customer or a product master file. It may be more comfortable to call these intersections instead, since as I mentioned above, in the early days of the information age, information is not yet an autonomous actor. Both ecosystems have climates and topographies which determined organisms access to resources. Information ecosystem topographies are characterized by data and system architectures. And climate relates to the periodic or cyclical changes in the availability of resources dictated by business climate changes. Biodiversity is a feature which translates into the variety of information. Ecosystems with high degrees of biodiversity, or info-diversity, are capable of generating a greater amount of goods and services upon which businesses and consumers depend. But these ecosystems may be more complex and fragile. Let's take a look at climate or other influences that can adversely affect or imbalance them. The types of processes within the biological ecosystem include energy flows, nutrient cycling, and the movement of matter. These sub-processes enable the main functions of decomposition, reproduction, and growth. The decomposition of organisms is an interesting parallel to the various methods for altering information. Decomposition happens by leaching, fragmentation and chemical alteration, in order to make organic matter more easily absorbed. Similarly, altering information can occur if you're filtering it, cleansing it, or applying algorithms to it, thereby making it more consumable. The reproduction of information, of course, involves making copies or extracts of it. The movement of organisms is akin to the movement of information, and the growth or volume of information is due to nutrients, like transactions, and the availability of energy and resources. Various occurrences or disturbances influencing ecosystem. In the biological world, disturbances may include falling trees, or rocks, wildfires, insect invasions, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. We can imagine and it should prepare for similar kinds of disturbances to our information ecosystems such as, well, security breaches, natural disasters, new competitors, or business collapses. Disturbances often lead to succession, the term ecologists used to describe a directional change in structure of an ecosystem due to changes in resource availability. The same with the information ecosystems. We often see how disturbances bring about or impel structural changes in the way that we manage and use information. Even climate change affects both ecosystems. In an information ecosystem, however, the climate is the macroeconomic function. Therefore, it would seem that like with biological ecosystems, man-made, or anthropogenic, global effects upon the business climate, may alter or stress information ecosystems as well. Many biological ecosystems are managed to ensure the ongoing optimal production of organisms for ultimate consumption: eating, viewing, playing, commuting, etc. Correspondingly, information ecosystems are managed to ensure the ongoing optimal production of information consumed by businesses and individuals. In our biosphere, ecosystem managers alter topologies by tiling, or grading; or introducing resource resources by clear cutting, burning, watering; or supplement resources through irrigation or fertilizing; artificially repair organism imbalances through herd thinning, fish stocking; and even helped prevent the extinction of species through genetic material banking in severely stressed ecosystems. In our info-sphere, ecosystem managers also perform similar tasks such as reconfiguring hardware networks, or cleansing information, augmenting computing storage, and bandwidth resources, repairing information imbalances via archiving or enriching data, and even help prevent the loss of information via backups. The effect of ecosystem planning and management of either kind requires an effective vision, strategy, measurements, governance, and personnel, along with an understanding of the organism's life cycles and a set of tools. Sound familiar? Maybe we should look to our forestry and agriculture agencies or water ministries and national park services for guidance on how to manage our information ecosystems more effectively. At the very least, we should consider borrowing from their model. I look forward to the emergence of information ecologists. Information ecosystem managers such as chief data officers would be well-advised to study biological ecosystems to ensure their organizations' information ecosystems are healthy and sustainable. We've only been managing our biological ecosystems for several millennia. What could those of us in the decades old information world possibly learn from them? A hell of a lot. One last note on ecosystems. If you think the whole concept of drawing parallels between biological and information ecosystems is a bit whacked, consider that the leading theoretical ecologist, Robert Ulanowicz, has employed modern information theory concepts like those from Claude Shannon and others to describe the complex structure of biological ecosystems themselves.