Blog: Of Anthills and Sea Squirts

Blog: Of Anthills and Sea Squirts

A newborn sea squirt floats through the open oceans until it finds a solid piece of ocean floor to attach itself to, and then eats its own brain. Permanent new home secured, it no longer needs any kind of mental capacity.

Know any sea squirts? The sea squirt apparently shares 80 per cent of our DNA, but Stephen James Joyce, grandson of famous Irish writer James Joyce, and a writer nearly as lyrical as his celebrated ancestor, suspects some people are even closer to sea squirts than that. Joyce reckons plenty of organisations are being dragged down by people acting like sea squirts, at a time when ability to adapt and respond to change has never been more critical. Firmly anchored in life or work, such people have apparently, he says, long since consumed their own brains.

As some frustrated CIOs struggle to drag torpid and stagnant structures and processes into shape for our newly hyper-linked world, they would know exactly what he's talking about.

"The sea squirt assumes that nothing is going to change in its environment and that it will no longer need to make significant adjustments," Joyce says. "This may work for the sea squirt, but human beings can't afford to follow suit."

If you've ever felt like you're surrounded by sea squirts determined to drag down your team's potential at a time when expectations on you have never been higher, Joyce (the younger) has written the book for you.

Teaching an Anthill to Fetch, published fittingly enough under a Creative Commons licence and created with Joomla! (Open Source) software, is a book about knowledge, evolution and the importance of collective intelligence in a hyper linked world. The title was borrowed from Capital One CEO Jim Donehey, who - speaking about efforts to help his 1800 employees adapt and respond to a highly competitive and rapidly changing marketplace - coined the phrase, "You can't teach an anthill to fetch."

In his introduction Joyce quotes Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, who reckons rather than seeing the standard 100 years of progress in the 21st century, we'll see 20,000 years of technological progress compared to today's rate of change. The future, both authors believe, will see exponential growth even in the rate of exponential growth. Indeed Kurzweil says when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence in a couple of decades' time we will reach The Singularity - technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.

The only way organisations can hope to survive a period of such profound change? Resilience.

Joyce sees resilience becoming ever more central to business under pressure to deal with change. "Tapping into individuals' and teams' natural resilience will become an essential element of business survival and success. As teams become increasingly virtual, productivity increases will be required; leadership skills will be demanded from more and more of the team's membership. Our capacity for resilience will be tested on a daily basis," he says.

No room for sea squirts there. The good news is that Joyce believes incredible things can happen when groups of people adapt and respond collectively. This is where collaborative intelligence becomes vital and the metaphor of the ants kicks in.

Anthills survive and thrive even in extremely hostile environments even though individual ants are pretty dumb and no single ant has a clue how everything works. That's because while individual ants are pretty dumb, a collective of ants is pretty smart.

Collaborative Intelligence is a fresh new way to understand how individuals and teams working toward a common goal can achieve amazing results

"Nature is a vigorously adaptive system. The evolution of life is the history of adaptation. Ants have adapted to the challenge of building supportive colonies by applying some very simple rules. .........for humans there are some simple "rules" that can enable us to work much more effectively together. These rules are much more like skills that we already have on board and that we simply need to further enhance. Given the right circumstances, people and teams can embrace and develop these skills. By doing so, they are expanding their collaborative intelligence (CQ)," Joyce writes.

There's no doubt collaboration between distributed stakeholders in an enterprise activity improves efficiencies, reduces errors, and improves the quality of every endeavour. While Joyce's book contains little that is entirely new, it is an excellent synthesis of some of the best thinking on collaboration, and may even give CIOs a fresh perspective on how to deal with all those little squirts.

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