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.

Graffiti is a (fun) crime

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Stigmergy (sign-posting), dialogue and conversation

Wikipedia defines Stigmergy as

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.

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The slidelink javascript in the top left makes it difficult to spend the time needed to absorb your points in this post: the images it pulls in have slight size differences, so the left hand column shifts up and down by half a line or so every few seconds.

I finally got around it by temporarily disabling the javascript in my browser, and then I could read the article without distraction.

Suggest you either drop the slideshow approach, or ensure that the images are all the same size.

Thanks for the quick fix. On to the content of your post:

I'd suggest that a process focus is more useful than a tool focus; people can surely use wikis and shared document repositories as part of a conversation process, and (almost as surely) a conversation on a difficult topic that happens solely via IM or skype may fail to reach resolution.

Consider the "single text" negotiating strategy, described in the links below. If done virtually, something like a wiki or shared doc repository would be necessary, most likely along with Skype/IM. And negotiation surely requires conversation.

If we're together so far, then:

  1. when is stigmergy useful in social interactions?
  2. when is conversation useful?
  3. what does a conversation "feel like", whether it happens face to face, via IM, or via some other means?

On single-text negotiation:

Hi Christoph

Thanks for your excellent comment

The single text approach looks very interesting - in fact I have used something similar to produce 2-3 page sets of ground rules for how various communities would work together. It does work however I found it labour intensive and therefore only practical for key strategic agreements and not as an on-going method of reaching consensus in a group.

Your questions are very good ones and merit full answers rather than just 1-liners.

Taking my biological analogy - stigmergy is for more about identifying threats and opportunities (like ants do with pheromones), whereas conversations are for designing strategies and tactics for addressing them.

Re point 3 - according to some people (eg Dreyfus "On the Internet") the main difference between these is lack of eye contact with some researchers trying to add this into virtual tools

Let me come back on them and also interested in your thoughts.

Best Regards


Ken - (only half in jest), regarding your Dreyfus point: the blind don't have conversations?

More seriously: I've worked closely with a deaf colleague, via IM, email, notes, her lip-reading, and occasionally an interpreter, and the conversation was qualitatively different, but it was a conversation nonetheless.

If we take stigmergy as the process of pointing to threats and opportunities, then calling shared workspaces and wikis are seldom tools for stigmergy, I'd say.


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