The perfect mobile messaging system: pheromone signals

Pheromone-based messaging is the oldest and most evolved form of biological signalling using chemicals to communicate through smell and taste. Today's virtual teams and mobile groups can use it to improve the way they use email, messaging and presence-aware technologies.


Introduction to Pheromone Signalling

When you mention the word Pheromone at a dinner party the most likely association you will register is about strange perfumes you can buy which make you irresistible to the opposite sex. For example, books like The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odor in Human Sexuality extol the wonders of Human Pheromones.

However human sexual attraction is just one small aspect of what Pheromones are about as the sense of smell is the oldest of the natural senses, the most evolved and the basis of most biological signalling systems.

Pheromone messaging is used by almost every animal or insect - large or small - land, air or water dwelling.

For example, if you walk round the wonderful Dinosaur exhibit at The Natural History Museum in London you will learn that it is believed that dinosaurs had an amazing sense of smell which they used in hunting their prey.

In terms of brain size comparing the part of the brain associated with smell in a Tyrannosaurus Rex with our human brains is like comparing an orange to a pea!

13 Characteristics of Pheromone Signalling

Pheromone messaging uses chemicals to effect communications between animals and insects through smell and taste and have the following characteristics (for more details see [1]):

  1. Broadcast and Individual
  2. 1-way
  3. Whole species
  4. Simple vocabulary
  5. Intraspecies and Interspecies
  6. Robust Delivery
  7. Low energy
  8. Longevity potential
  9. Message Range
  10. Multichannel
  11. Quick and Slow Responses
  12. Anonymity of sender
  13. Location Information

Let us look at each characteristic in turn and consider the practical ways groups and teams currently could re-organise their electronic communications along bioteaming principles:

1. Broadcast and Individual
Pheromones are predominantly broadcasts to many but can also be used between individuals in a species.

Practical Application: Within a trusted group we can be more transparent by broadcasting to the whole group (one-to- many) or communicating with a single individual (one-to-one). In another article, Team communication patterns: key lessons from nature, I explore the benefits of reviewing and reducing 'one-to-some' communications.

2. 1-way
Messages are not replied to.

Practical Application: Use of 2-way messaging can seriously slow a team down as all replies are waited for. Teams should use 1-way messaging as a default and 2-way on exception.

3. Whole species
Pheromone messaging is available to all the members of the species - however different castes within a species may have different messages they send and 'listen' for.

Practical Application: All members of the group should have full and equal messaging rights including the ability to communicate with the entire group. This is often restricted due to concerns around spaming and misuse. A new mindset is required here. If its abused there are ways to correct it such as using reputation management systems where a spaming user loses digital reputation.

4. Simple vocabulary
The messages are simple stimulus-response templates and contain no complex body information.

Practical Application: You should as try to put the essence of the message into a short amount of characters (100-200) or even to use a set of abbreviated message types e.g Feedback, Vote, Opportunity. This enables them to be acted on only by reading the email header and is convenient for sending by SMS and IM. We spend far too much time on message bodies and even worse, attachments, which our co-workers often do not read - especially if they are on mobile devices

5. Intraspecies and Interspecies
Pheromone messages are predominantly used within a species however they can be also used between species (deliberately or inadvertently). Interspecies messaging happens in two ways. Synomones are 'honest' messages' where the message can be relied on and is for the benefit of both sender and receiver, for example, an alarm message where two or more species share a common prey. Allomones are 'dishonest' messages where the sender is attempting to mislead the other species through some form of chemical propaganda. Messages can also be eavesdropped by other species (typically prey) - these kinds of messages are known as Kairomones.

Practical Application: Can you organise your communications into multiple self-contained groups with the ability to send and receive messages to/from other groups?

6. Robust Delivery
There are two main aspects to this. 'Flow Round' - where messages can flow round an obstacle in their path (unlike visual messaging) and "Darkness Transmission" where the messages can be transmitted and received at night.

Practical Application: Can you create a multi-channel capability (eg email, IM, SMS...) for your communications to ensure robust delivery of messages in difficult and 'noisy' environments

7. Low energy
The main energy requirement in messaging is for the sender to generate the message. Because of the minuscule amounts of chemical compounds which need to be created pheromones have much lower cost to send than say acoustic messages such as a cricket chirruping. They are also very low energy cost to receive.

Practical Application: How can you make your messages as simple as possible to transmit? Even more importantly making them easy to reply (minimum clicks) particularly for users on the move using mobile devices.

8. Longevity potential
Unlike acoustic or visual messages pheromones have the potential for persistence as the chemical can be available in the environment for an extended period.

Practical Application: Is there somewhere all your groups communications, for all your different channels, get stored, aggregated, archived and available to all users to inspect. The danger with a lot of short messages such as SMS or IM is that once sent they are lost and are not integrated with the team's email and other communications.

9. Message Range
Pheromone messages have a natural range as the scent is stronger the closer the receiver is to the transmission point.

Practical Application: Are you using group rings and sub-groups to ensure you are not notifying team members unnecessarily? Most groups can be divided into a number of concentric rings - inner, middle and outer - each of which has different levels of engagement and notification requirements. For more on group and team rings see The 3 rings of member commitment in any dynamic group.

10. Multichannel
Pheromones can be used in conjunction with other messages for two main reasons. The first reason is redundancy where over-communication via more than one channel is used to ensure the message gets through. The second reason is when the pheromone only contains part of the message and the other part is transmitted over another channel. To fully understand the message the receiver needs to read both channels.

Practical Application: Like point 6 , Robust Delivery, you should be able to specify a number of channels for a messages including email, SMS, and IM and to allow redundancy if required by having messages simultaneously transmitted over more than one channel

11. Quick and Slow Responses
There are two types of pheromone messages - Releaser messages which release an immediate effect in the receiver and Primer messages which prime the receiver to commence a longer-term response such as the production of sperm or to initiate caste transformation

Practical Application: You need a way to indicate what type of message you have just sent - immediate action or not and a 'reminder system' to ensure the longer-term messages are not forgotten about.

12. Anonymity of sender
If a pheromone message is broadcast rather than individually transmitted then it is not possible to identify the sender of a message. This has benefits (anonymity) and disadvantages (locatability of sender).

Practical Application: Anonymous message senders create all sorts of issues around authenticity and SPAM - I would not recommend it. However you should allow the sender to be able to request anonymous replies where this is appropriate such as a vote or a group feedback session.

13. Location Information
Pheromone messaging can be used to lay trails and can therefore be used to convey location information - for example of a new food source or a prey.

Practical Application: It is definitely in the future as opposed to today but you could use location information in messages, such as find the nearest team member, via the growing capabilities of location-based services facilities within team member's mobile phones.


I have outlined 13 characteristics of pheromone messaging which represent the most evolved system of group signalling on the planet.

Many of these characteristics can be included in the way we use electronic communications in teams and groups by relatively simple changes in our behaviour and modest reconfiguration of our existing communications technologies.

For more on bioteaming see The secret DNA of high-performing virtual teams


1. Pheromones and Animal Behavior - Communication by smell and taste, by Tristam D. Wyatt, Cambridge University Press, 2002

About the Author

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:

Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs

The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks

Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.

Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more response and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.

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