Ant or lion: Which would win a head-to-head fight? How about all of the ants vs. all of the lions? Zoom forward 100 years -- and observe a swarm of nanobots vs. a Transformer robot.
Now, let's apply that example to your business. The real transformative opportunity of big data and other emerging SMAC (social, mobile, analytics, cloud) technologies is simply stated: Using the power of big data, you can enable optimal behavior at the lowest level of your organization -- across the swarm of "shop floor" employees and customer-facing team members.
There is a concept in ecology called the Biomass Pyramid. It is a visual representation of the mass or productivity at each level of a trophic system. Top carnivores, like lions, require considerably more biomass at the bottom of a pyramid to support them. It is a pyramid because there is energy loss as we move up through the pyramid. Frankly, it’s inefficient.
Now come back to the present. What about your organization, and let’s think about information-mass rather than biomass. Does the boardroom beat the shop floor? Which has more collective knowledge and power?
You could draw an info-mass for your organization with the customers at the Producer level and external facing employees just above that. The boardroom and senior management would be at the tip of the pyramid. The vast majority of the information and decisions are happening down at the low level.
The efficiency point holds up, too, as information travels up the pyramid there is an efficiency loss; reduction of data granularity, currency, and loss of meaning. The trip back down of the pyramid with decisions is equally inefficient; a Chinese whispers effect that dilutes the message.
Takeaway 1: Your Business Information should focus on information and decisions at the lowest organizational levels
How Do You Do This?
So how can you optimize behavior at the lowest level to make the best decisions? The first thing to recognize is that behavior and the way information is exchanged changes with the trophic level. In the environment, top-level organisms have large brains and are typically considered to be conscious; they also tend to collaborate in relatively small, sophisticated social communities.
At the lower levels the communities are larger -- an insect colony or a forest, for example -- and the individual entities are less sophisticated. Some entities aren't even sentient -- flora, for example. However, highly optimized decisions can still occur. Look at bee colonies and the seasonal pollination cycle, for example.
The analogy holds to a business organization. Those at the top typically have, if not bigger brains, more experience and knowledge of the business than those at lower levels.
Takeaway 2: Information exchange and group behavior are different at different organizational levels.
I’m fascinated by the efficient problem solving that natural systems exhibit and the complexity that emerges. I don’t think this is confined to nature. It is also exhibited in economies and human social constructs the Internet or a business, for example.
As Bonabeau Théraulaz put it in Swarm Smarts (Scientific American): "Each insect in a colony seems to have its own agenda, and yet the group as a whole appears to be highly organized."
Swarming is an example of emergent complexity. It's a collective behavior demonstrated by a group of similar animals to achieve a common objective.
As a more abstract definition I like that given by Wikipedia: “Swarm behavior is the collective motion of a large number of self-propelled entities.... From the perspective of the mathematical modeler, it is an emergent behavior arising from simple rules that are followed by individuals and does not involve any central coordination.”
I propose that organizations at the lowest level (the "shop floor" where customer and other stakeholder interactions occur) are primarily driven by swarming characteristics. And if so, we should direct our business architecture efforts and those at information architecture, in particular at the behavioral determinants of the swarm.
Takeaway 3: Behavior at lower organizational levels is characterized by swarms.
Creating a Swarm
My inspiration for this article came from the news in the summer that Harvard scientists have created the world’s largest "hive mind" with 1,024 simple robots that are able to self organize to accomplish tasks like create letters.
They called them Kilobots.
The hive mind robot is a completely different approach to robotics than the creation of a single intelligent robot. And given the nature parallel, I think it might be much more successful. I expect it to be more successful because the design rules are simpler and the complex bit emerges for "free."
Gamification & The Role of Motivation
Now let's go back to the human organization. Systems that work well as swarms economies or Twitter, for example are comprised of many people making self-interested decisions that just happen to drive the existence of a complex system.
Individual motivation is clearly key. With an ant colony or a Kilobot this is programmed into the entity it follows simple rules. Humans on the other hand are more complicated, but I would suggest that the codification of human motivation is also possible. In the business world it is called Gamification.
Gamification is essentially the application of people’s levers of motivation to induce them to perform efficiently within a system -- be it money, leaderboards, or the joy of helping.
Takeaway 4: Motivation at the entity level is a driving factor of the swarm, gamification provides the levers to address this
The Role of Information
Within each swarm, system information exchange is key (visual, oratory, olfactory, etc.). This is actually a constraining factor on the size and sophistication of a swarm, though. With no communication swarm behavior is not possible. If a bird loses its sight then it can't fly in a flock anymore.
But, here is where the opportunity in the modern business world goes exponential.
The big data explosion is all about the volume, variety and velocity of available information. The Internet of Things means that every part of your supply chain can be a part of the swarm. Social media extends your customer swarm, faster processing and mobile mean that the quality and speed of information to each team member is greater. The big data revolution essentially removes a limiting factor on swarm size and effectiveness.
Takeaway 5: Information availability is a limiting factor of swarm effectiveness, and big data is changing the bounds of what is possible
I’ve suggested that decisions and information quality are superior at the lower levels of an organization, mirroring the biomass pyramid found in ecological systems.
The way behavior is modeled is considerably different at these lower levels. The volume of entities means that behavior emerges from many small simple interactions a swarm in effect.
Therefore the focus of business architects and designers of information systems should be on this lower level the customers and shop floor -- not the boardroom or the executives.
Motivation of actors is key, and gamification can address this. Information availability constrains the sophistication and size of a swarm. But big data means that this constraint is fading away.
The real opportunity of big data is to enable bigger and more successful swarms.
When will your organization truly become a Swarm Organization?
Bernard Panes works for Capgemini Business Insights. He is a big data expert based in the Nordics Region.
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