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Thursday, 4 November 2010

Swarm Intelligence versus Production Line Repression

Networks not Processes

This article is about how we can choose different structures and organisation. What do we want? We dont have to accept just the one way of organising that is on offer.

Modern internet era IT enables new forms of organisation. Once it was only possible to control linear processes of production with a limited networking capability outside those production lines. Production and supply would be organised in a preplanned, pre-set arrangement and people would fit into that arrangement.

The Ford era production line is the idea with suppliers feeding in from the sides (a simple 'network'). This reaches its peak with the Dell mail order PC business model where the PC is built to a customer's unique order from parts sourced and organised from around the world coming together Just In Time for delivery. But it's still basically Fordism.

Fordist thinking underpins all manner of production today, not just cars but data handling, call centres, restaurants, hospitals and service providers, even solicitors, teachers, doctors and other professionals have been Fordised (?is that a word?). Karl Marx called it proletarianisation.

Our ways of thinking are conditioned to believe this is the only safe way to organise and this is the theoretical basis of Value Chain Analysis and other popularBusiness Process re-engineering techniques which underpin most common management thinking.
The storyline goes "If we can only make the process more error free, more efficient, more responsive we will be ok" (but disregard the psychology of the people involved because that is too unpredictable to manage so pretend it isn't there.)

The internet and the communications technology we now have has enabled greatly enhanced networking inside organisation to the point where the concept of 'a production line' business process can disappear. We can have business structures which are more like the way we live the rest of our lives, in networks not in production lines.

Eric Bonabeau is an informatics engineer with France Telecom and a world expert on the application of swarm intelligence to computer systems.
While he deals with routing of information on the internet and in telecoms, the same principles of routing exist in all information and business process management systems i.e. in all human organisations.

He and other IT engineers have shown in practice that it is possible to organise communications in a better way. One that utilises the collected intelligence of the agents (people) in the network rather than suppressing intelligence into the obedience necessary to operate a business process production line (and then moaning about your workers for not obeying the rules).

The most serious problem with Fordist production lines is resistance to change, the investment of effort required to change is high, and it therefore lags behind customer and market changes. Change has to be reactive because it has to be planned and agreed in advance (i.e. not worth the hassle).

Fordism is fragile because it is dependent on experts and specialists who alone can control it and it is vulnerable to disruption, being linear, a blockage stops the line. (modern multi-lateral production lines like Dell's avoid the 'spanner in the works' blockage but are still vulnerable to shortages of key components produced by single factories). You don't have to have a physical production line to be Fordist, it can be virtual or spread out between departments or between sites. It can be manufacturing or service.

Fordist production dehumanises people working in it, alienating them from their behaviour, generating stress and negative reactions, and divides people into controllers and controlled. Worker coops struggle to manage these tensions.

Organisation based on swarm intelligence is different. It looks to the 'intelligent' behaviour of social insects, where non-intelligent single insects working socially, can create extraordinarily complex organisations - two way highways, brutally efficient foraging behaviour, organised defence strategies, bridges over obstacles, complicated division of labour and large and complicated physical structures like termite nests.

These organisations look like factories. The behaviour looks like efficient productive behaviour. It is not reliant on single pathways or single specialists or single resources.

To our Fordist eyes there seems to be redundancy. Ants exploring seem to wander aimlessly though they are actually following a search pattern. Once a food source or threat or job needing doing (clearing out the rubbish for example) is detected, the information is efficiently transmitted and colleagues easily exploit the new found resource, mount a defence or get it done. Opportunities are not wasted as they are in Fordist organisation where people (not ants) cannot try something new because they are too busy 'on the line' or 'on the phones'.

This is the key weakness in Fordism, that people's intelligence is not used, yet business managers cry out for better change capability while the source of improvement is there in front of them but frustrated by the organisation they impose!

Swarm intelligence based production systems are not as dehumanising as Fordist production lines. Strange as it may appear when we are looking at ant behaviour, swarm permits people to use their intelligence to try a new way of doing things, or try new possibilities. If they are supported by appropriate information systems (the human equivalent of the ants' pheromones) successful 'tries' are efficiently copied and the effort gets a good payback, and unsuccessful 'tries' get stopped PDQ.

But the key is that the 'changes' are small and build up to a bigger change if other people copy them. So production systems cannot be production lines where even small changes cause disruption. They have to be something like production groups eg as Volvo (used to) use, a team of workers builds the car in a bay with parts brought to them as needed, rather than standing alongside a line with parts brought to that stage on the line.

In the group, workers can show team colleagues better ways to do the work, peer review encourages quality and collectively demand better support from others eg parts distribution. On a Ford line, workers face the machine as individuals unless they all go out on strike together. There is little possibility of self-managed improvement (thought there may be suggestion boxes managed by management.) They are dependent on management to make improvements , to respond to feedback, to be persuaded to give them the time and space to try something new etc.

In a swarm organisation, this creative behaviour just happens. HR recruits, selects and trains people to work in this self-managed way but we then force ourselves to work 'on the line' instead.

Swarm isn't chaos, there are principles and boundaries. Ants normally behave predictably, but if something different happens, maybe they fall off a leaf, they can behave differently. Humans being intelligent are much better at taking initiative than ants but normally most people prefer a reasonable routine with an occasional challenge, just right for swarm organisation.

It would be easy to reorganise worker owned businesses as we want to, to fit how we clearly would prefer to work, in charge of the work rather than the work being in charge of us. The reason we don't do it, is because our information and business process management systems cannot currently cope with anything more complex and we assume the generic production line is the best and only way to organise.

So if we want our businesses to be more responsive to customers' changing requirements, automatically correct errors, based on team working rather than 'cloud' working (much work is a bit like being a wandering lonely cloud), which enables rather than inhibits continuous improvement, should we be looking at organising ourselves something like swarm networking or like a production line with pre-set rules? And shouldnt any new IT system we are designing, be designed to support swarm networking rather than to control a production line (because then we would still be stuck where we are).

Too often more modern systems analysis opportunities are not considered before the trusted old ways are chosen again. Value Chain Analysis and other similar Business Process Re-engineering methods were invented long before the internet so it's not surprising they are designed to improve linear or simple networked processes.

It's not surprising they focus on designing a production process into which people must fit (requiring management to make them behave according to the rules of the process, an unwinnable task in a worker owned business).

And its not surprising they create controllers and other people who are controlled (even if they democratically agree to be controlled) because that is what they are designed to do. A 2006 European study found the primary cause of degeneration of worker coops was capture by experts who come to dominate and control information. Creating controllers is not safe in worker owned or cooperative business.

Should we not be looking at 21st century forms of organisation and creating computer systems to support them rather than assuming the only option is the old way?

Swarm is just one example of a range of new ideas for 21st century business organisation. Why don't we take the time to reflect and review and research before we commit ourselves? Another case of the UK disease of acting before we think?

Businesses die when they fall behind in the way they are organised. Some worker co-ops are exploiting swarm type networking, Dulas in Wales is (arguably) and is growing at an astonishing rate. They will soon be bigger than Suma "the UKs biggest worker coop" which while growing slowly, remains stubbornly Fordist.

C'mon comrades, break free, you have nothing to lose but your production lines!

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