Creating Effective Team Communication Systems

Fire Ants Teamwork In Nature

Project and enterprise teams across all organisation types are perpetually exposed to a stream of information flows that ebb the natural tempo of processes, policies, system mechanics, codes of conduct and collaboration protocols. These collectively bring upon the information and knowledge economy and the biggest problem here is that everyone is constantly in flux amidst a conundrum of competing batches of instruction, directives and stimuli whilst being overwhelmed with attention deficits. So how do we nurture distributed and collective intelligence in a setting where directives, knowledge and information are constantly fighting for prioritisation? How do teams effectively manage communication and leverage unified communication platforms to drive smart behaviours that lead to focused outcomes? We do this by looking at how Nature has employed the oldest and most evolved form of biological signalling, using chemicals to communicate through smell and taste, but appropriating it for the organisational context.

Essentially, Pheromone messaging uses chemicals to effect communications between animals and insects, through smell and taste, body language and auditory senses (sound). Ant colonies for example can consist of several millions of workers and on observation can coordinate and lift large loads of food across vast distances; thus, achieving its foraging and sustainability objectives. One can imagine the resonance here against large multinational teams operating in a matrix structure with multiple backgrounds, skill sets and scopes and especially those that work under a follow the sun model (where one time zone sleeps, the other is awake to continue the trail).

They key to creating focus amidst information overload is to simplify the messaging context and define a few principals that is aimed at creating collective intelligence (one knows all knows and distributed leadership through leveraged engagement) and the transmission of timely information with enough context. Think of aviation where there exist two critical communication terms universally used in all radio transmissions (Roger and Wilco). Wilco means I have received your message and will comply with it. Roger just means I have received your message, but I may or may not act on it.

Identifying technological ways to automatically achieve "Roger" and minimising all communication requiring a "Wilco" will already nullify futile and irrelevant information snippets and facilitate driving the right message and intention to the right teams to act. In this context, one-way messages are OK - as when you look at Nature; when an ant or bee broadcasts a message to another ant or bee - it doesn't wait for a response. This is evident, in the ant colony as they tend to "lay out scent trails to food sources, like breadcrumbs, for other workers to find and follow. When a single worker has found something, she will run back to the colony whilst sprinkling small drops of pheromones on the ground for other workers to follow". This also supplements the notion of "one knows all knows" thereby encouraging ecosystem participation from all team members and creates focus in the company by enabling creating leveraged engagement between agents in the system.

This framework is a contrast to issuing directives and orders as scientific research shows that orders have a higher 'information complexity' than situational information and are more difficult to assemble and broadcast quickly to teammates. Its noted that "orders are also more likely to contain errors and to be misunderstood. What is evident is that Nature has evolved an approach of simple message transmission coupled with enough distributed self-intelligence within each of the receivers for being able to know what to do with it. Learning from nature means that teammates must be trained to expect information rather than orders and must be able to quickly work out appropriate responses without having to be told. If we start providing just-in-time information bits to a virtual networked team which has been exposed only to receiving "orders" and "instructions" there will only be one response - team paralysis. The team members will digest the information but will not take action". Nature's teams essentially have two key types of messages, Primers and Releasers. Releaser messages are intended to elicit an immediate effect in the receiver and Primers induce the receiver to commence a longer-term response, such as the production of sperm or to initiate caste transformation. Practically, enterprises require a way to indicate what type of message has been sent and whether that requires immediate action or not as well as a 'reminder' system to ensure the longer term messages are not forgotten about.

Ultimately, communication etiquettes, messaging technologies and collaboration platforms should be designed with a supporting framework that integrates simple rules and principals that encourage what is known as STIGMERGY. Wikipedia defines this as a mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity. In doing so, the objective is to create a simple framework that leads to the emergence of complex group behaviours through relatively simple changes in behaviour and most reconfiguration of existing communication technologies.


About Max Bhanabhai

Max Bhanabhai is a bioteaming practitioner, author, strategic innovation and change management consultant. Max collaborates on Bioteams with Ken Thompson (The Bumble Bee). For more information on this important topic checkout Ken's book - "A Systematic Guide to High Performing Teams (HPTs)"

  • Thompson, K. (2008). Bioteams. 1st ed. Tampa, Fla.: Meghan-Kiffer Press, part 3.

  • (2019). Stigmergy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].

  • Per Douwes, Johan Abenius, Björn Cederberg, Urban Wahlstedt (2012) Nationalnyckeln "Steklar: Myror-getingar. Hymenoptera: Formicidae-Vespidae" p. 26 (Swedish)

  • Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson (1995) "Journey to the ants" p. 46

  • Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson (1990) "The Ants" p. 227

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