A swarm is a large group of insects working together for a common goal but without an apparent structure, system or hierarchy around the work organization. Ants, bees, termites are most common examples. Swarm work relies on what is called swarm intelligence and uses organization tricks that are not yet fully understood although a full scientific body is working on it (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence about emergence theory).
In short it describes the collective behavior of decentralized units, more or less self organized, natural or artificial.
In the world of work of humans (although ants, bees and many other insects are much better at this…) it can be found in:
- The army where every field soldier is trained to respond to situations depending on their context and without getting an order for each action
- Swarm robotics is an emerging technology by which robots act in concert either with a centralized algorithm (a number of scientific research uses the idle activity time of swarm of computers to perform large calculations) or, better, by reacting to their immediate environment, see the helicopter example on http://www.ted.com/talks/vijay_kumar_robots_that_fly_and_cooperate.html
- Collective work on highly divided tasks where one can choose a task, perform it, under pre-specified rules, submit it and get paid (or not). This is the realm of Amazon Mechanical Turk or, more sophisticated, of systems like Odesk or Topcoder, this is the core of work crowdsourcing. At one extreme of intellectual and interaction complexity it can be Wikipedia.
- A football stadium where the crowd (swarm) acts collectively to create noise, waves, etc. (ok this is not really in the world of work but is still interesting)
- A fleet of trucks carrying merchandise where each driver, following the road instructions, the GPS and a delivery plan (generally monitored by a computer) works, apparently independently from each other, to allow all goods to be finally delivered.
Related concepts: swarm intelligence, swarm logic, swarm algorithm (see http://dcm.uhcl.edu/c56330211spsomala/swarm.pdf )
However, let’s be modest, most of the swarm work theory and practice has still to be invented!
And by the way our workshop on May 3rd with Ross Dawson is about crowdsourcing, a branch of swarm work.
Image credit: Wikipedia CC