What Can Swarms Teach Us About Teams?

share on:

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

Share on Facebook26Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+3Pin on Pinterest1Share on LinkedIn5Share on StumbleUpon0Email this to someoneBuffer this page
Dr. Marla Gottschalk

Dr. Marla Gottschalk

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, consultant and blogger who specializes in workplace success strategies and organizational change. She has held various roles in management consulting and research. Currently she serves as Practice Manager of Organizational Development, at Rand Gottschalk & Associates. In this role, she helps individuals, teams and organizations develop intelligently — to meet work life challenges with a sense of confidence and empowerment.As a member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program, she explores current workplace topics — including those related to organizational development, employee engagement and personal growth. She believes that we all need viable strategies when facing workplace dilemmas — and that we can learn to effectively navigate through stubborn issues and obstacles.Her views on workplace topics have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, American Express Open Forum, CareerBuilder, CBS Money Watch, Deskmag and other outlets worldwide. Her blog, The Office Blend, explores topics impacting careers and work life. (A "Top 75 Website for Your Career" blog pick by Forbes.) She is also a contributing blogger at TalentZoo and US News &World Report.


  1. We have been developing a model and tool (xTune) for swarm work for already 5 years now (http://intunex.fi/2012/09/18/swarming-new-way-of-connecting-expertise/).

    We define swarms as work groups that gather around shared ideas, problems and projects based on skills and interests.

    Participation and the sharing of expertise in a swarm are encouraged through unique social rewarding system. xTune recognizes and rewards two kinds of behavior: inspiring (those who create buzz by sharing ideas and challenges) and helping (those who rush in to help and share their expertise). Automation and game mechanics also fosters learning and supports the cultural change (http://www.slideshare.net/intunex/xtune-leading-cultural-change-using-gamification-and-automation).

    Our customers have identified many concrete benefits such as:
    – Increased sales: The right experts provided more support for sales representatives.
    – Faster projects: Projects started quicker and achieved their goals faster when the right expertise was found when it was needed.
    – Reduction of unnecessary re-work: People didn’t have to reinvent the wheel because they found experts who had been working on the same problem before.

Leave a Response