Virtual team agility: The power of Stigmergy
What do Ants, Termites, Graffiti Artists, Cavemen, Teenagers and Town Planners all have in common? They understand the power of Stigmergy to leave marks in their environment as important sign-posts to friends (or foes). Even more importantly they all know the difference between sign-posting and dialogue.
Picture Source: http://theletter.co.uk/index/3610/funny_graffiti/full
Stigmergy (sign-posting), dialogue and conversation
A mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents.
It goes on to elaborate...
Stigmergy was first observed in social insects. For example, ants exchange information by laying down pheromones on their way back to the nest when they have found food. In that way, they collectively develop a complex network of trails, connecting the nest in the most efficient way to the different food sources. Other eusocial creatures, such as termites, use pheromones to build their complex nests by following a simple decentralized rule set. Each insect scoops up a 'mudball' or similar material from its environment, invests the ball with pheromones, and deposits it on the ground. Termites are attracted to their nestmates' pheromones and are therefore more likely to drop their own mudballs near their neighbours'. Over time this leads to the construction of pillars, arches, tunnels and chambers.
In simple terms then Stigmergy is making signs in your environment for others to follow-up.
These signs are a form of co-ordination between agents and are not meant to replace direct dialogues or conversations between intelligent agents.
Wikipedia defines conversation very differently:
A conversation is communication by two or more people, or by one's self. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views of a topic to learn from each other. A speech, on the other hand, is an oral presentation by one person directed at a group.
and goes on to say:
Those engaging in conversation naturally relate the other speaker's statements to themselves, and insert themselves (or some degree of relation to themselves, ranging from the replier's opinions or points to actual stories about themselves) into their replies. For a successful conversation, the partners must achieve a workable balance of contributions. A successful conversation includes mutually interesting connections between the speakers or things that the speakers know. For this to happen, those engaging in conversation must find a topic on which they both can relate to in some sense.
Virtual Stigmergy versus Virtual Conversation?
What better place to use stigmergy in the modern world of human groups than a shared workspace or a wiki?
But wait a minute - something is not right.
It looks like these very useful tools have been hi-jacked by our information processing culture (the "computers as brains" mindset).
Somehow we have tried to make shared workspaces and wikis into the repository of not just signs (for which they are ideal) but dialogues (for which they are not).
This manifests itself in teams checking documents in and out of a shared repository, making comments on them and believing they are having a team dialogue.
Learn from Natures Stigmergy
So the challenge is to use your shared workspaces and wikis as tools for sign-posting and don't be fooled that they are the best tools for dialogue and conversations.
The best tools for dialogue are the likes of skype, mobile/instant messaging and noticeboards.
No single tool probably fits the bill for both sign-posting and dialogue.
For more on the different types of dialogues and conversations needed in a virtual team see Making virtual communities and social networks sustainable.
About Ken Thompson
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 responsive 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.
Bioteams Books Reviews
A team of one is sometimes best. It might sound like heresy but sometimes the most effective way to produce something is not through collaboration. Collaboration is best for tasks which cannot be fully achieved by a single person – if a job can be completed best by one person then to collaborate to do it will only make it worse.