Rain forest management

The efforts by Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman

Tijn Touber | November 2004 issue
In 1994 the chairmen of Mitsubishi and Global Futures, Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman, visited the rainforest in Borneo. Their aim: to research the economy of nature. They found the rain forest fascinating not only because of its vast diversitiy of animals and plants, but also for its organizational structures. They co-authored the book What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature Today (Berrett-Koehler, 2002) about what they learned and then applied at their own companies. “If only companies like Enron, Arthur Andersen, K-Mart and others had known what we have learned,” Shireman said.
The rain forest shows how you keep an eco(nomic) system running over the long term. “The rain forest is the best value generating system in the world,” Shireman declares. “ It’s home to two-thirds of our global bio-diversity. And has been for thousands of years. It’s an example of innovation and sustainability. No one in the business community can allow themselves to ignore a system with such capacity.”
Shireman has points to the mangrove forests along the banks of Costa Rica’s rivers as a prime example of what he means. Mangrove trees multiply extremely quickly. Their survival strategy is simple: high fertility and fast growth. They have an enormous appetite and in no time, change their environment into a kind of swamp. Strangely, however, this type of ecosystem is unsuitable for trees, which then die. But the root system they leave behind is an oasis for insects, fish, plants and birds, which quickly move in to stay. Meanwhile, mangrove trees reproduce elsewhere. “Enron and K-Mart are like mangrove trees,” he says. “ They grow explosively. But unlike the mangrove trees, they don’t leave a network behind where something new or a valuable alternative can grow or thrive. If we’re prepared to learn the lessons of the forest, we can strive towards a more diverse and resilient economic system.”
It’s not a question of the survival of the fittest, but the survival of all that can adjust, according to Shireman and Kiuchi. Enron and K-Mart were aiming to crush the market so that nothing else could thrive. Kiuchi and Shireman came to understand that allowing diversity is a key to sustainability. Feedback systems—communications, in other words—within a company and with other companies are crucial to the survival of the whole system.
Shireman and Kiuchi stress that you can only speak of a sustainable economy if every different phases of a living system are honored. “The rainforest teaches us,” Shireman says, “ that there are four essential management systems: innovation, growth, improvement and decline. The chairperson who has a thorough command of all four can tackle nearly any challenge facing the company. 3M has proven itself a master in all four and has been thriving for a century. Hewlett-Packard has mastered innovation, growth and improvement for 60 years, but is now having trouble with decline. There are very few companies adept at all four, which is why very few companies survive more than 50 years.” – TT

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