Posted by: zyxo | September 8, 2008

Swarm intelligence and hierarchies

Book cover of Book cover via Amazon More then a decade after his book Out of Control, Kevin Kelly writes this post on the antagonism of swarm intelligence and central control. With the example of Wikipedia, the key example of the swarm intelligence of the web. It is striking, that even wikipedia has a sort of central control, an elite at its center. This proves that central control is needed, but also that it emerges from within the swarm. Quote from the comment of Gary Stein : “the Wikipedia elite was not elected. They simply emerged.”
The post on lifeblog on the same subject is also worth reading.

But what does this all mean ?

We know that swarm intelligence is the result of evolution. According to Kevin Kelly evolution is to slow, so some central control is needed to speed things up. I think he misses the point. It is not the speed that is all about, but the direction.
Evolution is the result of organisms adapting to changing environments. And with environments, I mean environments in its largest meaning : everything outside (and even inside) the organism. All the other individuals of the same species, all the individuals of other species (plants, animals, bacteria, viruses), all the the inanimate matter, air composition … Indeed : everything.
And what is the role of that “everything” in evolution ? It shows direction. Directly or indirectly, it drives organisms to adapt. Example : If climate becomes cooler, animals of a same species become larger (better volume/surface ratio and hence less heat loss). If you provide a forest with nestboxes for decades, the box-inhabiting birds become smaller, since they do not have to fight any longer for holes (the biggest wins the fight) as there plenty of them. Etc.
Without these environmental factors, evolution knows no direction.

The same with swarm intelligence in web 2.0 . If you have something like wikipedia, there are from the start already some dedicated people who want wikipedia to be a high quality encyclopedia. As they are the most dedicated, they will do the necessary effort to give direction to the swarm. They will give negative feedback on lousy topics. They are the evolutional force that guides the rest of the swarm towards quality.

The same happens in a knowledge enterprise. People can act as a swarm, doing whatever the thing they need to do. But unless they all know exactly what “the company” wants, they need some central control to point all noses in the same direction.

So the lesson for management is really simple : do not tell your people how to do their job, but tell them often and very clearly what it is the company wants to do. Reward every act, project, initiative that helps the company forward in the desired direction and correct every behaviour that forms an obstacle to the goals of the company. And when there are several levels of management, make sure every one of them tells the same thing and even more important : is an example of the “good” behaviour.
The swarm will do the rest.

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