Creating emergent, adaptive systems in organizations


In my keynotes and executive sessions I often use the analogy of ant colonies, in which the collective intelligence of the colony is far greater than that of its individuals.

Since the collective intelligence of many – or even most – human organizations is significantly less than the intelligence of many of its participants, there are no doubt lessons we can learn.

In my book Living Networks I included a small section on Creating adaptive systems in Chapter 6 on Network Presence. The company I mention, CompanyWay, was subsequently acquired by AskMe and in turn by HiveMine, by name at least keeping to the spirit of the initial concept.

The underlying concepts described in the passage below are now being implemented into some of the most interesting crowdsourcing platforms of today, building the mechanisms whereby we can create value – and hopefully intelligence – from many.

Too much structure in trying to enhance internal networks and collaboration usually results in the unforeseeable—and most valuable—interactions never happening. On the other hand allowing things to happen by themselves usually means that very little happens. How can you tread the delicate boundary between creating enabling structures and ways of working, without stifling the unpredictably useful connections from emerging?

Eli Lilly’s Research and Development group has implemented an internal collaboration system designed by CompanyWay, a start-up that applies to collaboration the principles of how swarms of insects can demonstrate organized behavior. The system allows a broad range of participants to propose ideas, add comments, and assess the value of each others’ ideas and comments. As discussion on a particular topic proceeds, the groups’ collective judgment is applied to determining whether to pursue or abandon the idea, and how best to modify and apply it. Over time, the contributors whose comments are consistently rated highly by their peers gain privileges in the discussions. Throughout the process participants are allocated “credit” points depending on how their contributions are assessed. One of the most useful aspects of Eli Lilly’s implementation of the system is that a number of users who were not formal experts made some of the most valuable contributions, as assessed by the group. Ideas are the true currency, and leaders emerge through the quality of their input rather than their titles or qualifications.

The networks are alive. So we need to treat them as living systems, allowing behaviors to emerge rather than imposing rigid structures. When ants forage for food, they lay down a pheromone trail. When they are in new territory they walk around more or less randomly, but when they stumble across food, they will take it back to the nest, and return for more. Since ants will tend to follow paths that have stronger pheromone trails—that is have been walked along by more ants—other ants will discover the path and go to the food, further reinforcing the path and bringing other ants to take the spoils. What the ants are doing is actually collaborative filtering, in which the best discoveries of individuals are made known the group. Building these principles into collaborative systems, as CompanyWay and others are doing, creates dynamic ways for the intelligence of groups to emerge.