Disrupting Traditional Leadership: Flock Behavior in Communities


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Leaders lead and followers follow, right? Not always. Researchers into bird behavior have identified that a few well-placed, co-ordinated "followers" can shift the direction of a flock of hundreds. What are the implications of that for businesses and online communities undergoing change. Can the followers lead?

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  • I’m going to talk to you about birds, ants and revolutions
  • So all of this starts with a really simple question: how do birds do this? How do they wheel around the sky, all seeming to know exactly where they want to go in the same moment, changing direction without any lag or effort at all?
  • That’s it - they just keep the same distance from one another at all times, and where your neighbour goes is where you go.
  • If you’ve ever watched the Snowbirds - same concept. You don’t listen to the leaders’ orders and follow him or her, you simply keep the same distance between yourselves and the others around you and the leaders set the direction, with everyone following behind. It’s also the same concept as …
  • Financial markets. In business, everything is about where you are relative to something else. Whether it’s your stock price in relation to the market, or your earnings, or your competitor’s stock price, it’s all about context. That tells us where we need to go next.
  • So what? Why does this fairly obvious observation matter? Well, I’m getting there. As you would expect, in most flocks, the group follows the leadership with the greatest mass - the big bunch at the head of the crowd. BUT - you don’t always have to have mass or position to change the direction of a flock or a group of people.
  • And this is where it gets interesting…His paper, released in July this year, is called “Collective Behavior Co-ordination with Predictive Mechanisms”
  • Craig Reynolds, who works in the R&D department at Sony Computer Entertainment near San Francisco, is someone who has also worked on this concept, developing models that simulate natural phenomenon and then taking that learning and applying it to models of emergent teamwork in crowds, such as collective construction based on stigmergy , as seen in social insects. The model seen here was developed in 1986
  • Stigmertgy is, of course, a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. BUT I DIGRESS…
  • So while this model is how we traditionally think of leadership controlling the direction of an organization, from the top down, like this (and, of course, this does work - pretty much all of the time). The interesting thing is that other models work as well…
  • What Zhang’s research shows us is that this model (small numbers of leaders, in the right places) can change the direction of an organization just as effectively as the traditional leadership team This is because people are like birds - they are constantly keeping an eye on those around them, maintaining a set distance, no matter which direction the organization is going in. For this model to work, however, certain criteria have to be met.
  • Criteria #1: Distribution. The leaders must be distributed throughout the organization in a fairly consistent way in order to touch the maximum number of individuals. Their own networks must not leave any significant pockets untouched by their mission, vision or goals.
  • Criteria #2: Allegiance. The people in the leaders’ networks must be absolutely loyal. That means the leader must be persuasive, and when he or she moves, their network moves with them, as do the networks surrounding their network… you get the idea.
  • Criteria #3: Communication. Zhang’s modelling showed that to get everyone to move at the same time and in the right direction, messaging about the mission and the action to be taken must be communicated to all leaders and then to the loyal members of their networks quickly, efficiently and consistently.
  • Obviously this model of creating change has many real-world applications. Revolutions and Elections (we all know the power of grass-roots movements) But also, most interestingly, perhaps - online social networks of all kinds (formal and informal). This is because mapping who the influencers are you need to reach in order to effect change is so remarkably easy. In many cases it’s there for the world to see in your “who I follow” or “friends” lists Many commercial software applications can deliver “influence maps”
  • Where is this applicable - elections, revolutions, organizational change - the thing that makes it particularly interesting right now is that it has never been easier to map peoples’ influence and networks via social media. It is not hard to imagine that software could identify the distributed influencers you need to leverage via information publicly available on their online social networks. This has never been easier. (Facebook network visualizer)
  • Technology - this theory is all based on mathematical models, which means it is completely theoretical. To make it real, what kind of technology would we need?
  • Taking revolutions to new places. Within a highly networked company, could an organized group stage a revolution? A Velvet Revolution or coup that could change the direction or leadership of a company or institution instead of a state or political entity?
  • Disrupting Traditional Leadership: Flock Behavior in Communities

    1. 1. Disrupting Traditional Leadership: Flock Behavior in Communities Maggie Fox, Social Media Group @maggiefox
    2. 2. How do birds do this?
    3. 3. <ul><li>They do it by staying in context. </li></ul><ul><li>By observing and maintaining a set distance from nearby flock members. </li></ul>
    4. 4. Much like aerial performance teams…
    5. 5. … and financial indicators. It’s all about where you are in relation to everyone else.
    6. 6. So? Generally, flocks follow leadership groups with the most members.
    7. 7. But new research and mathematical modeling by Hai-Tao Zhang, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, shows that a much smaller, more distributed group of birds can change the direction of an entire flock.
    8. 8. Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates
    9. 12. Distribution.
    10. 13. Allegiance.
    11. 14. Communication .
    12. 15. Revolutions … Elections … Networked communities of all kinds...
    13. 17. Some stuff to think about…
    14. 18. What would the technology look like?
    15. 19. Could we have revolutions in surprising places?
    16. 20. Social business in action?
    17. 21. Thanks & Photo Credits <ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ kinkyink </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ odreiuqzid </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ martinlabare </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ abrahamiphotography </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/pg </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ mshades </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ mickeysacks </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/b0xman </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ ceasol </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ hamoid </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/lyng883 </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ respres </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ djbrady </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ pixelitofoto </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ tmartin </li></ul><ul><li>http://www. flickr .com/photos/ phae </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/ myrmician </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/paopix/ </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/ wheatfields </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/exothermic </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/ hinkelstone </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.flickr.com/photos/ edmittance </li></ul>