Insects and Walmart are good at adapting

Sam Walton’s original Walton’s Five and Dime store in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Someone posted a comment on facebook about one of my posts that dealt with evolution, not contesting my analysis or evolution, but simply wondering why after 150 years evolution is still subject to severe criticism.  I have used the term ‘evolution’ loosely for most of my life.  It had no specific meaning to me just development from one thing to another.  However, it also was a scientific fact in my mind, just like Newton’s or Einstein’s theories something I had learned in school as a fact.   Actually I saw evolution of life in nature in the same way my generation saw technology, medicine and most everything else – a progression toward a higher, more developed and better state.  In personal terms that meant we humans get smarter, richer, faster, stronger, healthier and just better as we progress as a species, a nation and as individuals.  It is just a law of nature. Isn’t it clear we live better lives that the generations that came before us?

Simplistic I know, but I have had some very intense personal periods in my life where I tried to refute the personal implications of the bigger is better, new is superior and more is the perfect condition.  Mainly I fought the idea that I felt was implied in American life because I was not on track to be tall or rich (tall is bigger, rich is having more) and I was not going to be president.   Denying those ‘truths’ was difficult for me and I rarely had the self confidence to internalize my own arguments.

Anyway that was what evolution meant to me until sometime last year when I grew weary of 8 years of studying the Middle East and Islam; I started then causally to read literature from the 19th century – the formative century for all of my grandparents, but in particular the grandfather that molded my character.  In the 19th century after the English novelists and philosophers I found the explorers and scientists and of course, Charlie Darwin and his associates. That has lead me to a whole new understanding of evolution as a process of change – not necessarily a progression toward perfection as I had once believed, but simply change, adaptation to existing conditions by any species or individual within a species that gives that individual or species a better chance of survival.  Mostly any real change that can be seen and measured by humans takes a very long time, hundreds of generations and millions of years generally.

But there are some exceptions – the finches that I have written of before – the Galapagos finches sometimes changed within one or two generations enough to be measured – in beak size for example.  The other and most significant example are insects.  Because insects bred so frequently, produce so many off-springs and have such short life-cycles change can happen much, much faster; witness the quick adaptation of insects to insecticides – the insects adapt quickly enough to outwit the chemists and survive.  Some forms of bacteria and virus are proving to us that they too can adapt fast enough to outwit us.

So what is the connection to business and the gaming industry in particular?  Sometimes a business can provide a model for reasonably fast adaptation and evolution.  Look at Walmart, I don’t know the complete history of the company, nor do I want to detail it – suffice to say that Walmart got to be the largest retail company in the world through a long series of adaptation and changes in response to the business environment.  Walmart started in 1962 – about the same time as the Cal-Neva in Reno for example.  However, Walmart had (I don’t know if they still do it today) a very insect-like behavior that is suited to making rapid changes – Walmart’s managers measure store performance one day at a time, comparing the current day to the same day the previous year.  The manager is expected to beat the performance of previous year and is allowed a great deal of leeway to accomplish it.  Other companies, in particular Walmart’s competitors are looking at monthly or even quarterly results.  That gives Walmart a huge advantage and allows the individual stories to adapt faster and that makes the corporation stronger and more likely to survive and prosper.  There are many other characteristics of Walmart that have aided the adaptation, its vertical integration, its control of pricing of primary resources and manufacturing – but those only became possible when Walmart had enough financial power to make those changes.

Walmart does not necessarily offer a template for other business as every business functions in different conditions and certainly different industries have radically different operation conditions, but it does represent a model for thinking about what every business needs to do to survive.   Jurisdictions such as Reno and Atlantic City are facing the pressures as severe as those of a fruit-fly being sprayed – and only by becoming resistant to the poison or finding a new niche will ensure survive.   The move by Harrah’s into Philadelphia is one of finding a new and safer niche – an operating strategy like the Atlantis in Reno has is an example of being coming resistant to the poison.  Atlantis has built a property that appeals to a wide enough variety of people and markets and markets itself well enough to continue to grow and prosper while others in this market struggle and even fail as the Siena has done.


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October 2010
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