Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

The Internet and stigmergy

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 16, 2009

Stigmergy is a very interesting topic to discuss. The earlier post on the topic explained the meaning itself. This post will elaborate on that, and relates the meaning to the Internet. Where ant colonies rely on stigmergy to communicate and coordinate, humans can rely on the world wide web. Basically this is the same. Both can be referred to as stigmergic communication. Weblogs, wiki’s and social networks are examples of how the web can act as an environment where people can leave traces by posting, reading, commenting and editing. These acts of communications changes the environment in such a way that others can respond to it. The same is the case with open-source software. Everyone is able to contribute to existing pieces of code, and thereby improving the software, and leaving traces for others.

human_networkThe properties of the Internet enable cooperation between many individuals and groups very easily. All people share the same environment, and on many occasions, everyone has equal access to all traces that are left behind in the past. So everyone can act on these traces independently and mostly without any constraints a priori, if these traces can be understood of course. Because of the Internet being a network, everyone in the network is equally connected to any other. This has huge potential for every initiative started on the web, many people can get involved independently and at a very rapid pace.

In corporate environments people make use of the Internet as well, for example on social networks. Many people have a profile on LinkedIn for example. But there are some fundamental differences compared to open examples like open-source software, Wikipedia and the like. In the ‘real’ world, everybody is free to cooperate on projects that were started on the web. You simply choose to do so, or choose to stop cooperating. This stigmergic collaboration has proven to be very efficient. In corporate environments that is mostly not the case. You have tasks that you have to complete before a given time, or there are other constraints that prevent you from cooperating on a project that interests you because you don’t have access, or are not allowed a priori. Not very efficient compared to the successful open-source projects, while efficiency is very important for corporations.

However, there is a trend that can be perceived. Some corporations acknowledge the value of open-source projects, and hire people just to keep contributing to these projects. IBM is probably the best known example. They make use of open-source software, and in return they contribute by collaborating on the development. They really make use of the fundamental properties of the Internet, such as it’s open and stigmergic character.

Because of the stigmergic properties of the Internet, people are able to self-organize themselves. We see that in some occasions happening in corporate environments as well. I think that it will be very important for companies to adapt to the power of stigmergic collaboration that works so well when many people are involved (some say 25 people or more), and can be involved very easily. The only way to make this work in corporate environments is to open up. Open up internal developments, or join open-source initiatives. And this is not limited to just software. The stimergic characteristics make it easy for people to organize themselves. This self-organization of people by people, on a self-selecting basis is very efficient and can be very influential on existing organizational forms that are the case at many corporate organizations. Food for thought I would say…

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