Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Emergent Intelligence

John Robb has a fascinating post on how networked organizations learn and improve their orientation as they engage with their worlds. In “Emergent Intelligence,” Robb focuses on the Iraqi insurgency, but draws important and general lessons. He says there are five factors needed for emergent intelligence:

  • A critical mass of participation. I’d suggest that a critical mass is needed not only for the reasons that he suggests, but also to bring a diversity of experiences and the orientations through which they are perceived.
  • Local focus. I agree completely that focus is needed, or the experiences feeding the learning will be insufficiently similar.
  • Chaos! Mmm, chaos.
  • Pattern matching from stigmergic communication. I’m not sure I fully understand this, and hope Robb expands on it.
  • An openness to interaction. If the grand poobah leader knows all, and doesn’t listen, none of the rest of this matters.

There’s a distinctly Boydian nature to his list of factors, which map reasonably well to Boyd’s model of a learning organization with implicit control, acceptance of friction, and local decision making. I think Robb’s terminology is (pace stigmergicism) is easier to understand.

A final comment, on Robb’s final point: “It is impossible to discern the motives of this movement until it fully matures.” I see no reason to believe such a movement ever ‘fully matures.’ As long as these principles are followed, the organization will continue to change for as long as the external factors which reward cooperation exist. When those factors no longer exist, it will both stagnate and fragment, and those who consciously apply the rules will emerge elsewhere.

3 comments on "Emergent Intelligence"

  • John Robb says:

    Adam, you are probably right. The system is in a constant process of maturation. Nothing stays static. However, there may be information that can be teased out of the data if the gathering period is long enough.

  • Adam says:

    That’s very true, even when the gathering periods are short. You can learn about their orientation, flexibility, and learning processes. I am still confused about sygmergic communication, though.

  • Your last point highlighted a fascinating contrast between this line of thinking, and organizational theory. A common tenet that spans business, gov’t, religion, etc is that organizatons exist for their own purpose. Any group of people grouped in [pick your def for “organization”] become adept at maintaining that group’s role when their own well-being is tied to the group’s position in society. The great successes in history, an armchair historian could argue, are written by groups that successfully transition their role to maintain internal and external benefits with the changing environment.
    This shift, I believe, often comes at a very different pace from the smaller adaptations necessary to achieve [early objective]. Can you make any assumptions about the emergent intelligence for one objective (insurgency) and how it would affect the next (nation building?). Think PLO’s transition from terrorist organization to governing organization, then staying on path to sclerotic corrupt bureaucracy.
    Additional question: can an organization be too flexible?

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