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What Can Swarms Teach Us About Teams?

What Can Swarms Teach Us About Teams?
Marla Gottschalk
Marla Gottschalk
by
August 20, 2013

You may not work in an emergency room — but your organization may want to function like one. As critical issues arise, the ability to quickly shift resources and refocus energy can have a keen impact on continued business success.

This kind of workforce agility helps organizations meet challenges swiftly and succinctly. Which begs the question: Is your organization ready for a work swarm?

Swarming: A Closer Look

Borrowed from the rhythms of nature, the notion of “swarming” to assemble a cross-functional or cross-departmental team, could be considered a key factor in an organization’s ability to develop and thrive. Gartner described a work swarm as a “flurry of collective activity” to deal with non-routine workplace problems or opportunities. (See that discussion here.) Without this option, organizations can fall short in their quest to respond to stressors (or opportunities) in quickly changing internal and external environments.

Developing an ability to swarm is just as much an orientation toward the work itself, as it is a problem solving technique. Swarming needs talent and skills to flow quickly toward projects, as it capitalizes upon an agile culture and a fluid talent stream. This requires a modern view of organizational boundaries and talent utilization. There are challenges to swarming — and the process may not prove appropriate for all organizations. However, it may be an interesting option to consider.

Putting Swarm Theory To Work

Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

1) Apply open-system theory. Work swarming requires talent to flow into the organization, as well as within its borders. Early structure theorists (See Katz & Kahn) discuss open-system theory. However, applications of that view seem more possible with the advent of relevant social networks.

2) Let internal structure flex. To enable swarming, the structure of an organization would need to become increasingly fluid. Talent within the organization would be allowed to cross functional lines more easily and routinely.

3) Seek diversity. Including a considerably wider range of knowledge bases when forming a team to problem solve is desired – as solutions can come unexpectedly, from a loosely “related” discipline or function. These sources can include suppliers and others in close proximity to core problems and customers.

4) Remember roles rule. Becoming crystal clear concerning the roles of team players is key. Role clarity can help focus more energy toward the actual content of the problem or issue – and help team members attack their portion of the task at hand more readily.

5) Utilize social platforms. Crowdsourcing platforms (both internally and externally focused) can be utilized to facilitate the problem solving process – where stubborn organizational challenges can be posted and exposed to greater numbers of potential contributors. (Learn more about Innocentive here.)

6) Curate talent communities. Building a pipeline of talent is imperative with swarming – but this should be developed in a manner that is meaningful. Mapping the skills and strengths of potential team players within relevant industries, becomes a critical goal. Furthermore, teaming applications can also help document the evolving skill sets of potential contributors.

Have you utilized swarming techniques to speed problem solving at your organization? If so, how well did it work?

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared as a LinkedIn Influencer post. It is republished with permission.)

Photo Credit: Pixabay