Interview with Peter A. Gloor
In Search of Swarm Creativity
by Barbara Brynko
In December 1991, Peter Gloor gave a presentation at the ACM Hypertext conference in San Antonio. He was in the middle of a poster session about his Internet startup company CyberMap Systems when a gentleman came over and asked if he could drop off a few brochures at Gloor's table. Gloor didn't know him but willingly obliged his fellow "hypertext enthusiast." The brochure turned out to be about the World Wide Web; the gentleman was Tim Berners-Lee.
Gloor, who has stayed on the cutting edge ever since, just wrote his fifth book, Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation. The book is scheduled to be released by Oxford University Press later this month. He is now busy dividing his time among a wide range of academic and enterprise ventures.
Gloor's current business venture is iQuest Analytics, Inc., a Rehoboth, Mass.-based company that develops and sells software and services to analyze structured and unstructured data. The company's motto is "Harnessing Human Intelligence." Gloor is the company's founder, president, and chief science officer. He is also a research fellow at MIT's Sloan School of Management and at the Dartmouth Tuck Center for Digital Strategies. He currently teaches courses on swarm creativity at the University of Cologne in Germany and at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.
How Swarms Work
In his new book, Gloor draws upon his experience with more than 40 organizations during the past decade to share insights about Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs) and swarm creativity.
According to Gloor, a COIN is a "cyberteam of self-motivated people with a collective vision, enabled by technology to collaborate in achieving an innovation by sharing ideas, information, and work." And swarm creativity—when a group works together and exchanges ideas—is the power behind COINs. "Swarm creativity is like a beehive or ant colony," said Gloor. "It may look chaotic from the outside, but everyone has a job, knows what to do, and does it."
Citing the Web as a "perfect example," Gloor sees swarm creativity driving the growth and life cycle of COIN-based innovation. A swarm is powered by people who share a common vision and a desire to "change the world" and who do not expect any immediate monetary rewards for their work. COINs have actually been around for centuries, and many of us have already been part of one without realizing it (think tanks, projects, teams). Social mechanisms like these can be used to track a variety of behaviors used in developing new products, boosting customer relationships, building a highly motivated team, or creating efficient project managers.
Gloor, who received a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Zurich in 1989, calls himself a "swarm instigator." For his courses on swarm creativity at the University of Cologne and Helsinki University, students learn the basics of swarm creativity and then form long-distance teams to study blogs or online forums of their choice. They then report on their team's online communication behavior. "Right now, I'm just triggering the swarm, like yeast as a catalyst for fermentation," he said. So far, the response to swarm creativity has been "extremely positive," according to Gloor.
Balancing Industry and Academics
Gloor is a quintessential renaissance man. His insights into science, mathematics, and algorithmic analysis are as pronounced as his ability to play Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin on the piano. A Swiss native, Gloor feels at home in the mountains, and he often hikes around New England on his breaks from Dartmouth and MIT, where his research concentrates on helping organizations use COINs to boost productivity and innovation for knowledge workers.
"I'm always running the risk of trying to do too many things at once," he said. His list of past credentials include being a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers; a section leader for software at the Union Bank of Switzerland; a strategic consultant for DaimlerChrysler, Roche, Caterpillar, the U.N., and others; and a partner at Deloitte Consulting, where he led its $100 million-plus e-business practice for Europe. It was at Deloitte that the foundation for swarm creativity began in 1999.
"I know things that I can do well and know things that I can't," he said. He said he'd much rather be instigating swarms than managing a group of software programmers.
When it comes to tracking swarms, calculating results, and studying patterns, Knowledge Flow Optimization (KFO) identifies communication patterns through time to chart complex group dynamics, and Temporal Communication Flow Analysis (TeCFlow), a software tool, creates cybermovies of communication patterns in various formats (e.g., e-mail, Web site links, and blogs) to trace interaction patterns in social networks. Basically, they connect the dots to show how a team operates, who the lead communicators are, etc.
"Today, thanks to the Internet and the convergence of communication technologies, innovations no longer take hundreds or thousands of years to disseminate," he writes in his new book.
Gloor is always thinking ahead for his next projects. "I have high aspirations," he said. He has been toying with applications for Isaac Asimov's concept of social network behavior by drawing upon a host of global resources to study group behavior patterns.
Gloor is intent on resolving issues to effect change, but innovations don't happen overnight. Gloor even remembers Berners-Lee spending the summer of 1992 working at a desk in the fifth-floor hall at the MIT Lab for Computer Science because there wasn't an available office. From that desk, Berners-Lee still managed to coordinate the development of the Web with colleagues located in Finland, France, Switzerland, and California.
Barbara Brynko is Editor in chief of Information Today. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your letters about this column to email@example.com.