Midweek @ Musings: A Review of my “Required Reading”

Recently I described an unexpected work assignment:

one day last week I returned to my office to find a book on my desk with a note from my boss’ assistant.  The note read, “Stopped by.  Mr. Boss wants you to read this book and give it to Joe Colleague when you are done.”

And then I rambled on a bit about required reading.  As promised, I’m here today to tell you more about the book.  But first, some background.  I work as an IT director for a large multinational company.  Part of my job involves IT innovation — looking for emerging technology with potentially interesting application in our business.  We’ve been discussing how to improve our idea generation process by tapping the ideas of hundreds of people around the world.  When my boss asked us to read this book, he wanted to get us thinking, and give us a common language and examples to use in our team discussions.  In that respect I think the exercise was successful, even if the book did have some significant weaknesses.  Read on for my review …

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The Smart Swarm, by Peter Miller, describes phenomena from the natural world, and applies them to human communications and decision-making.  What can we learn from colonies of ants, bees, or termites?  Or flocks of birds?  Ants are good at self-organization, creating order from chaos.  Bees make use of the “wisdom of crowds” to find appropriate sites for their nests.  If you have ever relied on consumer reviews to help you select a book, movie, or hotel, you have participated in the human equivalent of these processes.

The book is very accessible and easy to read.  Miller adopts a format common to this type of business book: each chapter illustrates an element of his thesis, and is peppered with real-life examples from business or government.  As an editor for National Geographic, Miller is good at describing scientific concepts in layman’s terms.  Some of his examples are more effective than others; a long segment on the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings films was neither about the natural world, nor humans.  He also includes a chapter on locusts to describe the “dark side” of crowd behavior.  Locusts have always been one of my least favorite bugs, and this book did nothing to improve their status.

While The Smart Swarm succeeds in showing parallels between the natural world and humans, it falls short of helping organizations adopt these principles.  It is only in the last 10 pages that Miller sums up the lessons we should have learned in previous chapters (“From honeybee swarms we’ve learned that groups can reliably make good decisions in a timely fashion as long as they seek a diversity of knowledge and perspectives …”).  But  he fails to translate this into specific actions business leaders can take to change the way their organizations run.  This would have been a better book if it had taken that next step.

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