Virtual Teams, Virtual Groups and Virtual Crowds

The million member virtual team? Does the internet and recent advances in virtual, social and mobile technologies make it possible for human teams to be effectively unlimited in scale and rival even the largest ant colonies in terms of collaborating members? [Originally Published June 2005].

A Mexican WaveImage: Soccer Fans collaborating on a Mexican Wave

One of the differences between human teams and some biological teams is sheer scale in terms of number of members.

Human teams rarely exceed fifty and a typical large single human organisation might contain ten thousand members.

Human organisations much bigger than this obviously exist but they tend to organise themselves into smaller independently managed sub-units.

However biological teams, such as Ant or Bee societies, can contain up to a million members in a single mature colony or hive - all of whom can act as a unit.

This has meant that some dimensions of biological teamwork and group behavior were not possible in human teams and organisations due to this lack of scale.

The Internet might change all this!

Newsweek magazine (June 20, 2005) in an article, The Power of Us, reports that "Mass Collaboration on THE INTERNET is shaking up BUSINESS"

(You need to subscribe to read the article but its free and painless to sign-up)

The article identifies three types of internet-based "mass collaboration" which I would characterise as:

  1. Give and Take - for example creating shared distributed computing capacity
  2. Needles in Haystacks - connecting to other like-minds through shared interest rather than personal relationship
  3. Participation through Passion - co-inventing with others based on passion rather than money as the motivatator

What can nature's large-scale teams teach us about Internet-based Mass Collaboration?

For example:

  • Are these initiatives significant?

  • Are they the 'leading edge' of very important new group social practices?

  • Are they merely a number of novel ventures conveneniently grouped together under the topical buzzphrase "internet mass collaboration"

  • Do they represent "collaboration" or something else altogether ?

The effect of "scale" on collaboration?

"Scale" enables some particularly useful characteristics in natures teams, such as:

Reduced vulnerability to individual member failure

Individual member actions are unlikely to alter the overall group outcome due to the sheer numbers involved.

Swarm Intelligence

Simple individual behaviours can produce amazingly sophisticated collective results. Examples of this include bird flocking, schools of fish and of course ants amazing scheduling and routing capabilities.

Emergent Behavior

Swarming and school formation is a known as Emergent Behavior. An emergent behaviour can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective. The property itself is often unpredictable and unprecedented, and represents a new level of the system's evolution. The complex behaviour or properties are not a property of any single such entity, nor can they easily be predicted or deduced from behaviour in the lower-level entities.

Give and Take

Newsweek features Skype, the Voice over IP (VoIP) start-up which has attracted 41 million users and is changing the face of global telecoms industry.

'When users fire up Skype, they automatically allow their spare computing power and connections to be borrowed by the Skype network, which uses that collective resource to route others' calls. This creates a self-sustaining phone system requiring no capital investment based on users spare capacity.'

However Skype is just one example of the power of distributed or grid computing which has already been exploited by a number of other non-commercial initiatives such as:

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

Protein Folding

Folding@Home is a distributed computing project which studies protein folding, mis-folding, aggregation, and related diseases. By using novel computational methods and large scale distributed computing they have been able to simulate timescales thousands to millions of times longer than previously achieved.

World Community Grid

World Community Grid's mission is to create the largest public computing grid benefiting humanity. IBM has donated the hardware, software, technical services and expertise to build the infrastructure for World Community Grid and provides free hosting, maintenance and support.

Needles in Haystacks

The Newsweek article reports on the success of Innocentive Inc - a network of 80,000 independent self-selected problem solvers in 173 countries established by Eli Lilly & Co but open to anyone to use

For example, Proctor & Gamble have achieved their objective of increasing external development of new products from 20% to 35% by using networks such as Innocentive as "ways of reaching independent talent"

InnoCentive works like this:

  1. Major Pharma companies contract with InnoCentive in order to become "Seekers"
  2. They post 'Challenges' to
  3. Each Challenge includes a detailed description and requirements, a deadline, and an award amount for the best solution
  4. Awards range from $10,000 to $100,000

InnoCentive is an example of how you can use the reach of the internet to connect to other like-minds on the basis of shared interest rather than personal relationship.

Once the necessary critical scale is achieved then the network can become self-sustaining. With increasing scale challenges are more likely to be solved. This creates good publicity which attracts more seekers and more independent scientists into the network.

Participation through Passion

The whole Open Source Software movement (OSS) is probably the best known example of the innovative power of individuals once they are provided with the opportunity to be creative in an area which stimulates them

The article reports on SugarCRM,a 10-person company developing an OSS Customer Relationship Management tool Inc which has now been downloaded 250,000 times.

Equally interesting is the success of OhmyNews a South Korean Online Newspaper involving 36,000 'citizen journalists' writing up to 200 stories per day

Recently the Demos Thinktank produced a pamphlet suggesting the wider community benefits possible in using OSS principles in areas of community and government well beyond the software development domain.

So what does "mass collaboration" really mean?

Heres my take:

Firstly "mass collaboration" clearly has all the traits of an important new emerging group social practice only made possible by the internet. It would be foolish to try to ignore it!

Secondly it is collaboration "but not as we know it"

In a previous article I described the four different degrees of collaboration which have been observed in natures teams (Virtual teamwork - nature's four collaboration methods)

Based on original research by Carl Anderson I have labelled these:

  1. Solowork - members doing same things at different times
  2. Crowdwork - members doing the same thing at the same time
  3. Groupwork - members doing different things at different times (sequential)
  4. Teamwork - members doing different things at same time (concurrent)

It seems to me that the examples of mass collaboration we have seen so far are either Crowdwork (e.g. Skype and InnoCentive) or Groupwork (e.g. OSS and Citizen Journalism) but not Teamwork.

We have yet to see whether mass virtual teamwork is possible or not?

Thirdly we won't be able to fully predict what happens next!

One of the most interesting aspects of these phenomena is the fact that they all demonstrate emergent behaviour which means we cannot predict exactly how they will evolve.

For example these internet mass collaborations may evolve into even more valuable forms of mass collaboration by starting to operate as networks (with connections between individual members). Today they operate more as star formations (with connections mostly between individual members and the centre).

Alternatively it may turn out that some of the most advanced forms of collaboration are only available to small teams and not accessible to teams of the size we are starting to see in internet mass collaborations.

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson delivers keynote conference speeches, workshop facilitation and in-house consultancy in four key business areas:

  1. Creating High Performing Teams in enterprises including Virtual and Mobile Teams (based on the Bioteams Book)
  2. Establishing effective Collaborative Business Networks enabling companies to co-operate effectively in areas such as sales and product development (based on the book - The Networked Enterprise)
  3. How to use the latest social media technologies including blogging and online communities to promote enterprises, brand, organisation or event
  4. Development of graphical on-line interactive Business Dashboards and What-if Simulators for organisations to support Performance Improvement, Strategy Development and Executive Team Development.

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