Hive Mind

Tom Robertson: Posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 7:47 AM

I grew up pretty independent and introspective. Maybe because of that, I had always been mystified and blown away by human artifacts and activities that I couldn’t imagine wrapping my head around. As an engineer, I had learned to understand and do some pretty complicated things, but I thought those people who build corporations or cities must have a kind of intelligence I could only dream about.  

At a certain point in my career, it seemed like a good idea to figure out how to be a manager. I had recently finished graduate school, which had given me the strange perspective that if I aspired to advance my capability in anything worthwhile, I needed more math! I vividly remember starting my path to management in the Bell Labs library, reading books on the mathematics of optimal resource allocation.  

Fortunately, in spite of my naïve notions, I had the opportunity to take the leap into management. Experience was often a harsh teacher, and I learned things that made my Ph.D. seem like one of the bands in a rainbow, instead of the sun itself. One of the big lessons was that people working together can create and share knowledge that transcends the knowing available to any one person.  

How does this group-think work? It is partly enabled by truly remarkable capabilities that have evolved to make us not only individual thinking animals, but social animals as well. The social parts of our mind allow us to engage with each other in a whole spectrum of dances. On the other hand, as individual thinkers we have developed progressively more capable frameworks to guide our group endeavors. A city or a corporation is not so much a hierarchical system as a collection of smart, interacting bees focused and nurtured by their hive.  

The really cool thing about us human bees is that we can be the architects of our own hives. In our next post we will explore frameworks we humans have developed that allow us to accomplish feats of astonishing collective cognitive complexity. Not every team needs to develop a 2.5 million-part Space Shuttle, but many teams share the need to develop and use a knowledge base that transcends any one of us. How do we do that, without feeling like drones in a stifling, bureaucratic hive?  

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