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Meeting of the Minds: Technology for business "swarming"

By Kathleen Melymuka
July 28, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At global advertising agency Lowe & Partners Worldwide, when an account executive in Hong Kong gets a request for a proposal from a prospective client, he opens up a collaboration space on his PC and invites in subject-area experts, planners and other creative types from India to England. Each can invite others from his personal network, whether inside or outside the company. In minutes, a swarm of creative talent is exploiting the opportunity. Artists post relevant images; content experts surf the Web in unison to find useful sites; researchers drop in pertinent files; copywriters type or edit documents together in real time.
"This has shifted the landscape of expertise," says Ethan Schoonover, e-business director for the Asia-Pacific region at Lowe. "We're discovering resources we didn't know existed."
On the other side of the world, HP Services, which provides business services, systems integration and consulting at Hewlett-Packard Co., is also swarming. When an HP field consultant has an opportunity to bid on a big ERP project, he opens up a collaboration space and solicits advice from people he knows who have recently worked on similar projects. They each tap their own contacts, and so on, to bring the right people into the team space quickly to plan and then execute what needs to be done.
Swarming is a type of collaboration in which large numbers of geographically dispersed people quickly self-organize in a peer-to-peer network to deal with a problem or opportunity. It's a fluid, shifting network with no central control or hub. A swarm can be as complex as a global business network or as simple as a "cell phone posse" (see "Some Real-Life Swarms").
The military has been studying swarming as a tactic for some time, says John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
It was swarming that helped 300 U.S. commandos in Afghanistan to topple 100,000 Taliban field forces in the fall of 2001, he says. And swarming has cut the lead time necessary to attack a military target from eight or 10 hours to eight or 10 minutes, because it brings key planners together faster.
With this kind of success, it's not surprising that swarming is being discovered by business. "It lets organizations do more, quickly, with the same resources," says Michael D. Cohen, professor of complex systems, information and public policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and co-author of Harnessing Complexity (Basic Books, 2000). "A lot of people are betting that those [swarming] tools will enable more agile, quickly assembled, ad hoc

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