Virtual team connectivity - three action rules from nature

Bioteams are highly connected virtual networks

In this article I will introduce the second overarching principle of Bioteams, "Bioteams are highly connected virtual networks", and describe the second triad of supporting action rules (rules 4, 5 and 6).

Introduction


In a previous article, Virtual Teams - a new paradigm from nature, I argued that traditional teams have key weaknesses and limitations and are now being replaced in organizations by Virtually Networked Teams.

I described the problems these teams face and pointed to critical issues that can make technology both part of the solution and part of the problem.

What emerged as being critical is the recognition of the emergent nature of Virtually Networked Teams, as if the team itself were a separate entity from the constituent members who make it up.

I also proposed that this new understanding could be further promoted and made useful to a greater number of people by working around the establishment of a new discipline centred on the study of Bioteams.

Bioteaming is a new research area focused on the systematic study of natures' historically most successful living teams while identifying best methods and approaches to transfer and integrate nature's best solutions into the daily life of Virtually Networked Teams to alleviate their present handicaps and limitations.

In a subsequent article, Virtual Team productivity - three action rules from nature, I introduced the first overarching principle of Bioteams "Treat all members like leaders" and described a triad of bioteam action rules (rules 1, 2 and 3) which underpin it.

Overarching principle: Bioteams are highly connected networks

In studying nature's teams a recurrent theme constantly emerges - connectedness!

Any biological network is made up of a large number of nodes and the links between them. Our natural scientific viewpoint is reductionism - we have been taught that to understand something we must decompose it its constituent parts. However to appreciate how nature works we require a holistic approach where we pay attention to the whole system rather than just its parts. In this approach the key characteristics of a network are the links not the nodes.

Nature's team connectivity extends in three vital directions

  1. Members are instantly connected to each other via powerful communication mechanisms (ubiquitous broadcast)
  2. Members have unique day-to-day relationships with external parties (symbiosis)
  3. The entire team viewed as a single network possesses a characteristic pattern of connections which optimises its agility and effectiveness (clustered networks)

Rule 4 - Always On/Always Near

The Bioteam Hotline - any member in any place can instantly reach all the other members when they need to


Nature's teams use few words well and often

Nature's teams possess a limited vocabulary of simple messages which can be broadcast by each and every member to the rest of the team in an instant.

For example, Dr. Edward Wilson the world's renowned authority on Ants says [1]:

"We estimate than ant species generally employ between 10 and 20 chemical words and phrases, each conveying a distinct but very different meaning "

So nature's teams have no 'to-do' lists or in-boxes - if a message is not received and acted on immediately by the listener then it certainly won't be done later.

These 'bio-messages' have no persistence, for example, in the case of ants a message only lasts until the scent trail evaporates.

Messages are always sent and received 'in situ' - a message is sent and delivered from and to the other team members wherever they are.

Also bioteam communication is always secondary to taking action - after sending the message the 'transmitter' immediately heads off to meet the threat or the opportunity without looking back to see if anyone else is following them.


Survival of the Fastest

This approach of the 'biological hotline' provides certain advantages to natures teams including:

  • Speed of response - they can mobilise a 'mass response' exceptionally quickly
  • Appropriate design - makes best use of the limited intelligence available to both transmitters and receivers
  • Minimises 'down time' - the least possible time is taken up communicating leaving the most possible time for what natures teams are really good at - well co-ordinated mass action


Organizational teams don't operate Hot-Lines

The contrast between our organizational teams and natures teams could not be more marked:

  • Nature uses simple rapidly composed real-time messages - we use complex precisely crafted asynchronous messages
  • Nature sends the message to the members - we try to get the members to go to the message (e.g. email)
  • Nature emphasises quick response - we focus on accurate communication

As a result our organisational teams are often:

  • Sluggish to respond
  • Spending far too much time 'word-smithing' complex messages (with attachments which our fellow team members at best only skim read when they return to their desks later)
  • Poor at sharing important information early ("team intelligence")


So how can we exploit the Bioteam Hotline?

Firstly we can differentiate between 'team message situations' and 'team document situations' - we need both forms of communication but each at the appropriate time.

Secondly, just like the ants, we can define a short 'vocabulary' of key message areas which member are agreed should be brought instantly to everyone's immediate attention.

Thirdly we can construct member 'personal communication profiles' - telling us which device each member wants communicated through and when. The developments in the area of 'device presence' could be particularly useful here.

Finally we can enable 'send by any and receive by all' - instantaneous broadcast and receipt by and from whichever device team members are present on.

These requirements fit well with smart mobile devices - the small screens and limited bandwidth are not a problem if you are only using simple messages and no attachments.


Benefits of "Always On/Always Near"

If we adopt this action rule we will be able to react much quicker as a team, develop a stronger sense of ownership among the whole team and have an effective 24*7 early warning system.

We are also less likely to make the mistake of confusing communicating with taking action!


Rule 5 - Out-Team

Bioteam Symbiosis enables close co-operative relationships between internal and external team members.


Nature collaborates to compete

A better scientific understanding of evolution achieved in the last ten years has shown that much more cooperation takes place than was originally thought in the concept "survival of the fittest".

Competition is still crucial in nature however the unit of competition is as likely to be a pair of co-operating species as an individual species. Evolution is not so much competition between 'lonely individuals' but between 'productive partnerships'.

Such collaboration is known as Symbiosis - the long-term co-evolution of two independent species for mutual gain.

In Bioteams I call this "Out-Teaming" - embracing the outside member as a full team partner.

The scientist who has done the most to reshape our views on the symbiotic nature of evolution is Professor Lynn Margulis [2] who says :

"We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet and if we care to we can find symbiosis everywhere"

Everywhere we turn in nature we see symbiotic relationships including:

  • Ants and Aphids
  • Crocodiles and the famous Crocodile Bird who cleans its teeth
  • Trees and nitrogen-fixing bacteria
  • Birds and a multitude of Ticks
  • The Bacteria and our stomachs

It is also important to note that both species don't have to have the same power or scale - it's not a partnership of equals in that sense. The main criteria for symbiosis is that each must provide something the other is missing.

An important prerequisite for symbiosis is that the partners must also make an initial physical connection - in nature this happens purely by chance.

So in nature successful collaboration generally precedes successful competition and the unit of competition is often the symbiotic pair of interdependent species.


Why does nature love symbiosis?

In nature things only survive if they provide a genetic advantage.

For example some giraffes through genetic mutation evolve slightly longer necks, these giraffes get to eat the better leaves on the higher branches, they become better nourished, they live longer, and they provide more and healthier young.

Thus over time a higher percentage of the giraffe population has longer necks

Symbiosis must provide mutual benefit for it to be so dominant in nature - the two species must have a better chance of survival in partnership than in isolation

Also biological evolution proceeds at the pace of generations if you have two species, each with different lifetimes, symbiosis can in effect speed up the whole process.


However organizational teams don't major on symbiosis

Current wisdom is that if you are enlightened enough to have customers or partners part of your team (most don't even go this far) you should manage (i.e. limit and control) their participation, in some way, as team members.

Customers or sponsors especially should not be allowed to see the warts and all of the team .

However this lack of intimacy and lack of transparency destroys a significant portion of the potential value which a team can produce.

It also creates a lot of waste - I am sure we have all been to 'pre-meetings' to prepare for meetings with the full team . We probably all have produced documents which have to be 'sanitised' before full team circulation because external staff would see them.


So what would a bioteam do?

First we should not be naive - we should make sure our potential partners are neither predators nor parasites (both can be equally destructive).

Secondly we should have frank discussions with external team members to identify if there are genuine areas of normal commercial difference and tension - we should not gloss over these.

Thirdly, with the other two points addressed, we should fully embrace external team members from customer and supplier organisations as full team members and offer them full transparency. This does not necessarily mean we tell each other everything but we should at least be transparent about where we can't be transparent!

Fourthly, we should adapt proven team collaboration and rapid trust building strategies such as 'Tit for Tat'. This allows the inevitable failures in personal collaboration and trust to be quickly addressed without derailing the whole team.


Benefits of 'Out-Teaming'

The benefits of treating external team members as full partners are obvious.

It's not so obvious that out-teaming also means we are less likely to be tempted to sacrifice long term gains for short term expediency at another's expense.

Also it is easier to resolve the inevitable conflicts within an overall mood of mutual commitment

Finally something you value may cost me nothing to help you achieve and vice versa - this is the icing on the cake of bioteam symbiosis


Rule 6 - Nurture the Network

Bioteam connectivity ensures the team has good internal and external networks


Network connectivity is more important than network size

Biologists have studied robustness in biological cells [3] by putting them into extreme conditions and seeing how they fail.

The conclusion is that biological fault tolerance depends on having a highly connected network.

However it's not just any kind of highly connected network but one with a unique pattern of connectivity - the clustered or scale-free network.

For example, in the case of C. elegans, a one-millimeter long worm with a mere 302 neurons, neighbouring neurons are five times more likely to be linked than if the network was random - this is what it means to be a clustered network.

Research into nervous systems such as C . elegans shows that intelligence does not just depend on number of neurons but more importantly the number of internal interconnections between them.

A key aspect of clustered networks are nodes which have many more connections than the average node - these are called hubs or connectors.

Hubs play crucial roles in nature. For example food chains are always dependent on 'keystone species' - you can remove other species with limited overall impact but if you remove a keystone species the food chain will rapidly disintegrate.


Is it a case of the more connectivity the better in a biological network?

Counter-intuitively the answer is NO - there is an optimum level in living systems known as "the edge of chaos" - the point between order and chaos where living systems exist.

Too much order and "the islands of activity would be too small and isolated for complex behaviour to propagate across the system". Too much chaos and "the system would be too sensitive to small perturbations to maintain its organisation". [4]

A network with too many links becomes frozen (like ice) into rigidity and over-complexity. A network with too few links (like steam) lacks the necessary connections to make anything happen at all.

So good networks are like liquids - existing in the "sweet spot" between solids and gases.

In a nutshell network connectivity provides nature with robustness, fault tolerance and nervous system intelligence


The power of weak ties

Social Network Analysis research (5) identifies two basic types of relationship - Weak and Strong Ties . This fits exactly with the biological concepts of clustered networks and Hub nodes.

Organisational teams tend to be biased to one form of tie or the other - teams seldom manage both well naturally.

Strong ties are very good for getting work done, usually in small tightly bound groups, but such teams not generally known for their skills at listening to and responding to signals from and changes in their external or customer environments.

Weak ties (hubs or connectors) are very good for listening but not great for getting things actually done


Good teams need both strong and weak ties

So firstly teams need to map out their networks and identify gaps. This can be done informally or using software which generates network maps from email or phone records.

Secondly the team needs to create and nurture the right network to support both objectives - getting the job done right (strong ties) and getting the right job done (weak ties.)


Thirdly Organisational teams need to have the right hubs

When the social network analysis is done it often reveals that only one person in a team holds many vital relationships. What happens if they get sick or overloaded - where is the fault tolerance? Also sometimes these people are not the best ones to be holding these relationships!

Hubs are also vital for ensuring the team gets 'team intelligence' early enough to use it.

Customer Hubs are very important but many teams neglect other equally critical hubs such as:

  1. Technical Hubs (who can get the IT department to do you favours)
  2. Social Hubs (who know the team's temperature)
  3. Organisational Hubs (who are very well connected to the company grapevine at a high level)

Some of the recent developments in "social software" for networking and business development could be particularly helpful here if we rigourously applied them to our organisational teams as well as our personal networks.

So bioteam network connectivity provides a team with:

  1. Responsiveness to changes in the external environment or market
  2. Unofficial fast channels for getting help easier and quicker to avert a team or project crisis
  3. 'Jungle guides' who can help the team stay on the winding road to project success


Summary

Organisational teams are Virtually Networked Teams which need a radically different approach to technology and operations than the traditional teams.

Virtually Networked Teams can benefit hugely from an approach I have called "bioteaming" where they model their operation on natures most successful teams.

You can immediately start to create a basic bioteam technology environment for your virtual teams by using the first three action rules which support the overarching bioteam principle "Treat all members as leaders":

Rule 1 - Send out timely information
Rule 2 - Everyone must broadcast
Rule 3 - Act don't Ask (Permission Granted)

This article has introduced the next three action rules of bioteaming which can take your team to another level of effectiveness based on the overarching principle "Bioteams are highly connected virtual networks":

Rule 4 - Always On/Always Near
Bioteam Hotlines allow any member in any place to instantly reach all the other members

Rule 5 - Out-Team
Bioteam Symbiosis enables the development of close mutually beneficial relationships between internal and external team members

Rule 6 - Nurture the Network
Bioteam Connectivity ensures the team possesses a characteristic pattern of network connections which optimises its agility and effectiveness

An organisation team which is operating around these six, simple but profound, action rules will have gone a huge distance towards mimicking the unrivalled effectiveness, responsiveness, agility, communication skills, connectedness and co-evolution abilities of mother nature's teams.


References

1. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B., 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press, pp. 55

2. Margulis, L., 1998 The Symbiotic Planet - A New Look at Evolution, Weidenfield & Nicholson, pp. 5

3. Barabasi, A., 1999. "Emergence of Scaling in Random Networks", Science Volume 286, 1999, pp.509-512

4. Capra, F., 1997. The Web of Life - A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, Harper Collins, pp. 198-199

5. Granovetter, M., 1973 "The strength of weak ties", American Journal of Sociology, Issue 6, pp. 1360-1380


About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors.

Ken is recognized as a leading expert in the emerging area of Virtual Enterprise Networks and has successfully incubated a number of these networks in the UK and Ireland.

Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and workflow.

His strategy includes the use of key sets of team dynamics, multiple coaching interventions and the effective integration of a small toolkit of virtual collaboration technologies

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Mobile phone users: are we now cyborgs

The term cyborg is used to designate an organism which is a mixture of organic and synthetic parts so designed to enhance its abilities via technology. William Mitchell a professor at MIT Media Lab believes that through our mobile devices we are all becoming mobile cyborgs and its for the better. In his book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City which he discusses in an interview with James Harkin Mitchell describes how the new communications technologies have overlaid our city spaces with central nervous systems connecting us into the wireless ether via our mobile devices which act as umbilical cords to anchor us into the information society's digital infrastructure.


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