Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Reading :: Swarm Creativity

Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage through Collaborative Innovation Networks
By Peter A. Gloor

Swarm Creativity introduces the notion of "Collaborative Innovation Networks" (COINs; p.3) in which "knowledge workers collaborate and share in internal transparency" (p.4). The basic concept should sound familiar if you've read much of the popular business literature on knowledge work: COINS "communicate directly rather than through hierarchies"; "innovate and work toward common goals in self-organization"; and they are "the most productive engines of innovation ever" (p.4, author's italics). Gloor argues strongly that these COINs "Innovate through massive collaborative creativity"; "Collaborate under a strict ethical code"; and "Communicate in direct-contact networks" (p.12). And Gloor lists a variety of benefits that COINs deliver to organizations: agility; external knowledge; hidden opportunities; synergies; reduced costs and time; experts and hidden contributors; more secure organizations (pp.12-14).

But if you're familiar with this literature, you may be wondering what benefits this book delivers that go beyond others you've read. That's a hard question to answer. Gloor draws from familiar literature (Granovetter, Gladwell, Malone) and familiar examples (Linux, Wikipedia), but his COIN construct is a bit more specialized than the networks implied by the literature he cites. In particular, he specifies that COINs form around "charismatic, inspirational and creative thought leaders" (p.37) surrounded by "motivated disciples" (p.40), providing Leonardo da Vinci's circle as one historical example (Ch.2, 3). Strikingly, this sort of network, which is ideologically centralized around a charismatic leader but is operationally distributed, is described as one type of network in Castells' The Power of Identity; the exemplar there is Aum Shinrikyo. But Castells is careful to offer other examples that are not concentrated ideologically. See also the work of Granovetter and Burt, who focus on concrete links among actors rather than ideological ones. And especially see the work of RAND analysts who have been studying swarming: they've developed concrete examples of associational networks that do not center on a particular charismatic leader or ideology, yet innovate in striking ways. By focusing on "thought leaders," Gloor seems to imply that other sorts of networks simply don't deliver the benefits of COINs - and I was left wondering if he was even aware of networks that didn't fit the template he laid out. Indeed, I have strong reservations about COINs' ability to account for loose multidimensional organizations.

That worry was stoked by Gloor's reading of history. At the beginning of Ch.3, he states flatly that "Homo Sapiens beat out Neanderthals because of learning networks": homo sapiens migrated, cooperated, and innovated, and this "flurry of innovations ... led to the extinction of the Neanderthals" (p.49). I'm no anthropologist, but this appears to be a variation of just one of many hypotheses of Neanderthal extinction. I wouldn't hang my hat on it, nor would I put too much stock in Gloor's reading of European history later in the chapter, all of which seems to focus on brilliant individual leaders rather than systemic sociocultural and technical changes.

It's this push-pull between a Great Man view of leadership and a newly distributed, adhocratic labor force that seems to be the central contradiction of the book. Gloor hasn't been able to resolve this contradiction, and consequently I'm reluctant to recommend the book.

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