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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Swarm Theory & Social Computing

As a father, I've watched the movie "A Bug's Life" several times. In the movie, there is a scene where the locust (the bad guys) are laughing about how they can boss around the wee little ants (the good guys), until the head locust illustrates to the other locust that as individual ants, they are puny, but if they were to organize themselves they would be over-powering mass force. Yes, I realize I am referring to a kids cartoon, however, the power of self-organization by insects and animals to overcome huge challenges is the topic of this months National Geographic. The article is called Swarm Theory and it has interesting applications to social computing and mass collaboration concepts.

The article has several very interesting examples of how ants, bees, fish and other animals can do seemingly complex tasks even though individually these creatures really aren't all that intelligent. For example an experiment on bees shows how scout bees select the best new home through a democratic process based on individual assessments. Read the article, it's fascinating. The ability to do this isn't dictated through some genius bee nor is it a simple group think. Instead it is individual analysis where some bees select one home and others select another home. "Voting" by the bees is used to make the final decision for the colony on the "best" location.

"One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing."

For a company looking to enter in the social computing domain, there are lessons we can learn from nature. The ability to harness social computing and mass collaboration requires opportunity but also individual assessment. If we let people loose to "self-organize" but they don't have enough expertise to make a "valid" decision or they get lazy and go with the most popular we lose the benefit from mass collaboration. When rules and laws are well understood mass collaboration is powerful. Simple rules lend itself to large groups but complex rules, if understood well, can also be addressed through collaboration.

"an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. "

Before you expect great things from social computing in your organization, consider whether or not your employees are equipped to act responsible and empowered to make their own decisions. Thank-You Vanessa for pointing out this article.

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