Every now and then, I receive calls from publishers asking me which books I would like to review for you. Some of them I turn down. But when I heard the title The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making and Getting Things Done , I quickly said yes and asked them to send me a copy.
I’m interested in this topic because the crowdsourcing trend has been playing itself out on the Internet as technology allows us to collaborate. I’m also wondering how the concept of crowdsourcing, collaboration and sharing affects concepts of intellectual property. We’re swiftly moving from an environment of rugged individualism to collaboration. And I’m curious to see how this book brings those concepts together.
Get ready to “bee” entertained
I could tell this was going to be a fun read because the chapters have “bug” names like Ants, Termites, Honeybees, Locusts, etc. But the content of each chapter is really a business problem and the lessons these “swarmy” community-based bugs can teach us on how to solve them.
The first story is of Southwest Airlines assessing how they board planes. Should they stay with the unassigned seating policy or not? Is it faster? Will it harm their brand if they switch? To find the answer, Southwest looked at how ants organize themselves.
Swarm reels you in by getting you interested in a familiar business problem, and then takes you into the world of scientists and researchers who study bug colonies and how they solve similar problems. Throughout the book Miller asks us to think about what we can learn from this research. Where does it make sense to abandon our command-and-control hierarchies for some of the strategies that our bug buddies have been using for millions of years?
Swarm combines business and science to get us thinking
I didn’t read anything about Peter Miller (not even the bio on the book jacket) before reading the book. I wanted to get a flavor for the book and for what was being offered before applying the filter of who the author is and what they are bringing to the party. I was also running a personal experiment. I wanted to see if I could guess whether the book was written by a journalist or by a subject matter expert. I guessed journalist and I was right.
Peter Miller is a senior editor at National Geographic. No wonder the science was so much fun in this book. Miller does a fantastic job of bringing bugs to life. He does this early on in the Ants chapter by referencing the movie Antz to give those of us who know nothing about actual bug behavior a reference point, then leading us from what we know to what we might not know.
Miller brings that same level of characterization, personalization and storytelling skill to the business problems addressed in the book. This is the main reason I enjoyed this book so much–and that I think you will, too.
Lessons from the swarm
From ants: “Instead of trying to keep fine-tuning a system so it will work better and better, maybe what we really ought to be looking for is a rigorous way of saying, OK, that’s good enough. Maybe a smart way to face the unpredictable.”
From bees: “Seek a diversity of knowledge. Encourage a friendly competition of ideas. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choices.”
From termites: Indirect collaboration involves people making changes to a shared structure, which inspires others to improve it even further. Then the structure becomes part of the creative process. Think of brainstorming or open-source collaboration as an example.
Read Smart Swarm for fun and learning all at once
I’m all about learning how to do something. But every now and then, what I really crave is educational entertainment. Think of Smart Swarm as watching the Discovery Channel in your head. It’s digestible science paired with practical business problems you can relate to. Pick up Smart Swarm  (website here) and what you’ll get out of this wonderful read is a satisfying mix of knowledge and creative ideas. Not only that, but you’ll also pick up some interesting tidbits for your next cocktail conversation.