By: Peter Miller
A new kind of team work has recently emerged in the workplace -- one that looks a lot like smart group behavior in nature.
In the past, work teams typically have been created and supervised by senior managers, who oversee goals and structures for the group.
But lately, as more and more companies have experimented with social networking, wikis, blogs, and other web-based tools for collaboration, “self-organizing” teams have also sprung up.
Building Team from the Inside Out
Unlike traditional teams, which fit neatly into a company hierarchy, self-organizing teams spring up spontaneously, experts say, in response to issues that motivate employees to take action by forming informal, temporary teams.
Workers who join such teams tend to share a sense of urgency about their objectives, and often they don’t come from the same divisions or levels in the company organizational chart --both of which are hidden sources of strength.
By tapping into each other’s knowledge, as business strategist Don Tapscott writes in his foreword to my book, The Smart Swarm, “peers can collaborate across organizational silos. . . and work can be organized on new project models, where the genius of human capital can be unleashed from its old command-and-control constraints.”
Taking a Cue on Team Work from the Mother Nature
What’s intriguing about such teams is that they’ve been around a long time in nature.
Ant colonies, for example, distribute tasks among thousands of workers every day without direction from a boss or central authority. Nobody tells anyone else what to do, and yet everything gets done, often through impromptu sessions of teamwork.
Consider the weaver ants of Southeast Asia that build nests in trees. To form a foundation for a nest, individual ants form living chains to pull leaves together, each ant holding onto the waist of another. As soon as the ant in front grabs the leaf, the ant in back starts walking backward, pulling the whole chain to close the gap. Once the leaves are touching, other ants rush in to hold them in place. At that point, yet another worker glues the leaves together by squeezing silk onto them from a larvae. It’s an amazing example of spontaneous teamwork.
Or think about swarms of honeybees that collaborate to make critical decisions. When a hive splits and the queen departs with half of the bees to find a new home, the group must act quickly to choose a new shelter. Their survival depends on it. So scouts search the neighborhood for suitable spaces, such as hollows in trees. When a bee finds a site she thinks is suitable, she returns to the group and competes with others who are also recruiting support for their sites. The higher the quality of the site, the more vigorously a scout lobbies for it.
After watching various bees advertise a dozen or more sites, other scouts are persuaded to fly out and evaluate them for themselves, and it turns into a contest. The first site to gain enough supporters is the winner, and the whole group flies to its new home. As experiments have proved, the swarm nearly always make the best choice.
Team Building Work and Social Insects
None of this team building work should come as a surprise, since social insects like ants and bees have faced difficult challenges for millions of years. No wonder they’re good at working together. They’ve come up with smart answers to important questions, such as:
How can you go about building and managing teams so that small contributions by many individuals add up to something valuable to all?
How can you structure a team to make individual members smarter than they would be on their own?
For businesses today, the lesson seems clear. As Carl Anderson of Georgia Tech and Elizabeth McMillan of the Open University in England writes:
“When companies find themselves in “fast-moving competitive environments, insect societies may provide a model of how an adaptive organization can be run extremely successfully.”
By thinking about teamwork and social media in a new way, businesses may discover that solutions to big problems can sometimes be found in small places.
Peter Miller is author of The Smart Swarm (Avery, 2010) and is a senior editor at National Geographic where he has served as a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. He lives in Virginia with his wife. Visit the author's website at the SmartSwarm.