Businesses always invite promoters to achieve an advantage over the opponents by a series of actions aimed at achieving psychological gains by continuously
updating their strategies to stay ahead of time. This results in better bottom lines in a competitive environment. To achieve this condition, resulting in paralysis of the opponent, some basic parameters need to be fulfilled as a function of product, time, marketing strategies and lightening OODA cycles (Observe–Orient- Decide-Act) to overwhelm competition. The foremost is the “Intent”- A side that has a clear unambiguous intent which can be comprehended by CEOs and sales team alike can achieve desired synergy in achieving it through a multitude of interdependent but independent actions resulting in fulfillment of the targets.
“Comprehension of Intent” thus is paramount to a large or small organization, separated in geography and time achieving synergy – each understanding the ‘WHY’ of the strategy and taking requisite actions to contribute to developing favorable market conditions. A simple Intent of the company could be “Not to Let the Shareholders Lose” or “employees first”.
To a discerning business mind, it would be evident that achieving this synergy, amongst a large variety of management, marketing teams, sales force and logistics echelons, is no small feat. It mandates very high levels of skills to operate in a complex environment where “real time situational awareness“ is essential to comprehend the magnitude of complexities thrown open by market conditions. Operational philosophies and tactical skills, drills and techniques need to be of a very high order to achieve psychological ascendency and physical domination of the market place. The heart of this strategy lies at the energizing the edges of the business organization.
At the core of such business activity would be the quintessential effort to make business strategies and tactics an “unfair fight” by a series of tactically separated but operationally coordinated actions overwhelming the rivals. This translates to an innate activity called “swarming”, “shoaling” or “schooling” by insects, fishes and birds which as a group achieve their intent by performing different actions contributing to the overall aim. The operative word is “innate”. A sense developed over time till it becomes genetic. Business swarming is a high intensity activity where large number of relatively smaller and insignificant work forces, empowered with high situational awareness strike at market forces at multiple points resulting in making the competition redundant. Blue Ocean Strategies, if implemented imaginatively, achieve this condition. Swarming is a direct fall out of ICT revolution where the lowest echelons of the work force remain umbilically attached to the management through a variety of tools – while retaining adequate independence within their “spheres of influence”.
Since humans don’t have “innate” capabilities to deliver results, they indulge in devising ways and means of generating value through a variety of theories developed with time, technology, multidimensional capabilities, and human resource engineering encapsulated within an umbrella of better situational awareness. Theoretically, each side attempts to identify surface (strengths) and gaps (weaknesses) of the opposing side and conduct operations to break their cohesion. In this battle of wits, technology plays an important role in developing the “innate” skills in a work force. This empowered workforce can generate multiple options to operate in a seamless business environment with or along the rivals to generate multiple options.
How does technology enable swarming? It is every business’s dream to “Informationalise” and “Network” using impregnable structures of ICT. While various platforms are available to pull information today, however, as of date, no organization has real-time market management systems that can network, provide situational awareness and analyze data at will using multidimensional capability. For this, our doctrines and philosophies need to be encapsulated in “time, technology and training” of the present to articulate thought and action. The critical issue here is achieving “innate” behaviors as akin to bees to affect “Swarming” of the market place in the temporal plane. Technology may fail. Thus there is a requirement to “train as we work” repeatedly in the manner expected in business to ensure multispectral delivery by a variety of teams contributing to the larger aim. Thus swarming not only requires intelligent systems but very intelligent people participating in the venture.
Ability to Handle Chaos
The next crucial aspect attributed as the single most winning factor is ability to handle “Chaos” and operate in absence of instructions. Handling chaos thus needs to be developed and honed to the level of innate behaviors. This is a tall order and needs to be understood at operational and tactical levels. This would require cultural shifts and combating resistance to change. This concept would thrive on the principle of “Power to the Edges”. Simply put, empowerment, training and trust in subordinate teams has to be of a very high order. It is possible only if the managers generate value at the bottom of the pyramid. Market leaders will have to develop capacities to “organize, disorganize and organize”, keeping ahead of the competition at all times. This requires a framework of always working in ambiguous environments and developing skills to achieve this congruence. Huge investments have to be made both in time and resources to educate, empower, excite and energize the edges to comprehend this crucial ingredient of business under diverse conditions. If organizations invest in their swarming models intelligently they will evolve their own innovative methods to engage the clients.
The CEO’s or the higher management’s chief role is to articulate comprehensive action plans based on the value systems and intent of the organization. The imagination, perseverance and foresight of this component can bear fruit if it operates with its ears to the ground. The art of developing blue ocean strategies is largely incumbent upon the CEO’s capacity and capability to read the fine print of the market place and plant suitable strategies in motion. Having charted a path along these strategies, the next crucial step is linking his team to his intent, by a process of debates, discussions and deliberations to transfer the ownership of the strategy to the bottom of the pyramid. This is the most crucial activity as it would challenge the status quo and require deft skills of change management. Transcending human barriers through transferring ownership of ideas is the most appealing approach – if it is grounded in reality to generate a win win situation for all stakeholders. The CEO must continuously challenge the status quo by keeping one step ahead of the change management cycle.
At the tactical level, the aim would be to keep the competition fractured, dispersed, confused and detached. Thus the “multidimensional networked” (innate) teams will converge from many points simultaneously attacking the point of resistance carefully. Strictly speaking, they must generate multiple customer oriented strategies before the competition “sets” tactically. Here they should be able to generate value for the customers beyond conventional wisdom through an empowered approach. All along, team leaders will need to develop “situational awareness” patiently and execute every deal effectively. The essence of such multiple strike swarmed tactics would be to develop situations before entering the market, decide where to fight (attack weaknesses), set conditions and maneuver to advantage. This is possible when ICT enabled situational awareness enables, empowers and excites the teams across the complete spectrum of business. All this while the higher management monitors the conditions and situations in a “hands off” approach and moves in for the kill when the opportunity presents itself. To develop such “unfair advantages” development of multidimensional cross functional teams across flattened structures of the organization is crucial. The essence of such a strategy would be to employ these “small and many” tactical cross functional groups instead of “big and few” which generate value at the edges. Depending on the successes achieved, the higher executives must employ all resources at their disposal to move in. Therefore, there will be a mix of swarmed and heavy forces employed in time to achieve the objectives.
The Way Ahead
Considering the arguments put forth above, businesses must develop strong capabilities in a bottom up approach because swarming is tactical. To begin with, there is a need to equip, organize and train subordinates within the format of agile warriors. This approach also mandates strengthening of the intelligence acquisition capability by investing in suitable technologies to keep the data and voice connectivity of all cross functional teams. Only such teams will be able to transcend their job description and will be able to operate and deliver results across different spectrums of corporate activity. While the wish list for networking and “looking over the horizon” is large, there is an urgent need to harness and integrate available technology on in service techniques to achieve tactical asymmetry. Innovation would, therefore, be the ‘Mantra’ to upgrade legacy systems.
As mentioned earlier, “Swarming” by bees is an innate activity. Technology can assist humans in “seeing”, “talking” and “organizing” in a similar manner with in the intent of the CEO. However, given all other parameters, the key to developing “asymmetric business conditions” is a paramount need to focus on the lowest echelons of the teams. Unless these edges are empowered, trained and trusted – no group can generate multiple options to develop tactical situations contributing to operational aims. The skills, drill and techniques of planning and conduct at the bottom of the pyramid thus need to be honed to perfection to achieve an “innate” look alike work force. Only such forces can deliver within the context of “Swarming” even in absence of instructions.
Empowerment of the Edges
In all these activities, the final arbiter will remain the bottom of the pyramid – the only component of the force which will “see” and “deal” with the customer.
He, therefore, should be groomed, organized, equipped and trained holistically and trusted completely to deliver. Simultaneously, all efforts need to be made to ensure he gets the best situational awareness, guidance and engineering support to negotiate the task ahead of him. This force which has to work effectively despite information gaps would thus have to be masters of swarming and their managers adept at organizing, disorganizing and organizing to see through the chaos of the market place. Organizational adaptability would be crucial in this environment where risks will have to be taken and mistakes understood in their correct perspective. Rigidity and intolerance to “Ristakes” (Risk + Mistakes) would demolish the model by disempowering the swarm teams.
Swarming is Not a Panacea
Then there is the flip side of implementing swarming as a concept. Swarming is primarily tactical, sometimes operational and rarely strategic, and is a complement to other efforts rather than a replacement for them. Swarming is a logical extension of ICT, but the networks needed to make swarming routine are currently not available. At present, the networking for swarming is only available in very limited contexts. Situational awareness standards, obtainable as of now, are also major stumbling blocks in application of swarming at the tactical levels.
Swarming should be adapted, for appropriate missions, but is not a panacea. The challenge of modern markets is to identify the need and fill it, before the competition. Once identified correctly, the need can be addressed, but they first must be found and held in place. It is also pertinent to argue here that in the sub continental context, seamlessness and interoperability between various components of the organization would be crucial for swarming to succeed.
One of the prerequisites for swarming is considerable autonomy for the lower echelons. The principle must move in the direction of mission type tactics or directive style of command, as opposed to extremely specific directives giving no discretion to the subordinates. This will multiply the effectiveness of organizations. Sharing information, and pushing it to lower levels, is not a substitute for intelligent decision-making; business organizations are not bees or wasps. Some of the challenges of swarming, indeed, involve the ability of lower echelons to be aware of much more complex situations. Information overload is a real concern. This is especially so in the sub continental context where the introduction and absorption of new technology takes time.
More swarming will mean shifts in leadership, personnel, and facilities. The leadership must be able to trust a decentralized model, and all levels must have interoperable communications. There may be cases where higher-ranking officers need to lead or provide support to, smaller units than those with which they normally work, because that swarming agent may be the only one in contact with the real situation. This calls for a wider cross functional training regime under better situational awareness paradigms. It also calls for business leaders to be able to read through the chaos of the market place to generate multiple options while obviating losses. This is a complex heady mix.
Leadership thinking is one personnel issue. Another, especially with autonomous or semiautonomous systems, is having “smarter, more skilled personnel”. Business leaders must constantly ask if the current system is geared to create adequately trained, intelligent technically savvy junior managers, leaders and operators capable of taking decisions in a swarmed environment. Can they “pull” information from the environment without the clutter? This would call for an interdisciplinary, across the curriculum learning. There is a need to adopt doctrinal changes that focus on a systems approach of “training to task, not to time” that educate leaders to optimize the advances in market strategies, seeking to steepen the seasoning curve. This essential element in shift from training to wider learning is essential if swarms have to work effectively.
Distributed models will also call for both more prepositioned resources (not necessarily personnel) and the ability to reach back to the logistics nodes for support. Just in Time logistics may replace permanent nodes, but those logistics have to be able to reach the users.
Transformation of businesses should be based on swarming as an approach and not a tenet. It is a useful approach dependent on the mission. It exploits the benefits of ICT and works to maximize the effectiveness of traditional structures but not replacing it. It therefore should work to complement continuous transformation.
Tomorrow’s market places, with all the technological improvements, will offer opportunities to sense, see and track the opportunities before “setting up” the businesses in conditions unfavorable to the competition. Businesses need to speed up introduction and absorption of these enabling technologies to empower the cross functional teams. The pace of creating OODA cycles will be fast and there will rarely be time to refer the issues up the chain, calling for flattening of structures. This calls for a very high degree of competencies at the junior level to handle information overload or vacuum and act within the intent of the CEOs. Besides professional competence there would be a great requirement of leaders who can handle chaos.
In sum, employees will have to be given ownership of the ideas and allowed to develop their approaches to swarm the market place based on their motivation and skill levels.
Take Aways For the Leaders
Always look for and employ blue ocean strategies. Apply 15 % rule for managing change and involve all stake holders in devising these strategies.
Evolve and interpret timely market intelligence for swarms to be one step ahead of competition. Enable generation of faster OODA cycles through seeing and sensing the market place.
Flatten structures to enable swarming.
Set clear and unambiguous Intent and ensure it is understood clearly.
Educate, empower, excite and involve the edges in deciding priorities and objectives.
Permit adequate autonomy to the edges.
Provide desired technological back up.
Transfer ownership of ideas to the swarmed edges.
Pull feedbacks in a flattened hierchy and apply corrections intelligently.
Continuously interact with the edges and permit Ristakes.
Retain the ability to handle chaos.
Manage Information overload of the swarms by effective intervention, when needed.
Constantly keep the swarms motivated through ups and downs.
Invest heavily on the employees
Take Aways For the Teams
Assume ownership of strategies by active participation.
Operate uninhibitedly within the intent to evolve new answers and options.
Initiative and innovation is the key to success.
Remain in constant touch with the neighboring swarms and learn as you go along.
Avoid looking over your shoulders. Rarely refer matters up – constantly endeavor to outperform yourself.
Always generate new options and grass root strategies for implementation by the management.
Swarms must constantly conduct intra and inter swarm interaction through ICT or in person to remain updated.
Passion overcomes a lot of difficulties in a swarmed environment.
Enegise and enthuse customers with your energy.
- Foursquare case study: Are “swarm parties” in your company’s future? (businessesgrow.com)
- Definition: What is Intuitive Intelligence? – Francis Cholle on Intuitive Intelligence (francischolle.com)
- Book Review: TheSmart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better At Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done by Peter Miller (seattlepi.com)
- Inc. 500 Names SwarmBuilder as 100th Fastest Growing Private Company (eon.businesswire.com)
- Gartner warns of IT workplace upheaval (v3.co.uk)