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Swarm Theory and The Practice of Law

Wow. And here I just filed a post about nothing happening during these 'dog days' of summer in the blawgosphere, and I tumbled upon a great post by new blogger David Bilinsky of Thoughtful Legal Management. David reviews a National Geographic article about bees, swarm theory, and the implications for business (and other human) management. Fascinating stuff. David also mentioned a recent Cornell University study that speaks to the issue.

Birds and Bees

I'm not sure I can do justice to the entire concept of "swarm" theory, and frankly even the descriptions from the scientists sound fuzzy to me. At any rate, the idea is that in certain creatures (like bees and pigeons) that band together in large groups for safety, no one individual creature is really minding the store. Or, rather, the colony or hive or collective unit functions almost as a single organism by virtue of the interaction of all the creatures making independent judgments, and all communicating with those nearest. For example, in a bee hive, the "queen" in no way rules the hives. She does not direct activity. Rather, the bees each have a palette of a very few observation/reaction series, but are able to communicate these to each other. The effect is that the bees sort of 'follow each other' to where the honey is (ok, I seem to remember there is something about a "bee dance" and no I don't know how that fits in).

Maybe an easier example is a flock of birds. There is no leader telling a flock of one hundred pigeons to take off simultaneously from the pavement when my four-year-old runs up to it. Rather, each bird has a little tiny sensor and little tiny glycocalyxes in its brain cells that allows it to understand that: 1) that short, sticky human is a threat; and 2) if my buddy flies off, by God I'm flying off too. The result is a cool aerial effect.

Taking Advantage of "Dumb" AI

Alright. The next leg of this little thought-journey is that scientists, programmers and business management types are now using a sort of swarm theory approach to solving big problems. The idea is to give the computer a bunch of parameters, and ask if to look at the problem from every conceivable angle, and it eventually can turn up with some very surprising, non-intuitive, even cost-saving results. I'm not sure I grasp how this is different from any other kind of computing, but apparently it is. (That's for somebody else's blog to figure out).

Easier for me to understand is the sort of "hive-mind"-like effect of the world wide web (of course). Whole lots of people making eentsy-weentsy observations, that maybe in the aggregate can get us all as a nation, a world, smarter and better able to react (well, you know, except for the billions of people not reading, listening to news or blogging, but you get the idea).

Business Applications

Here is where it really gets exciting, but even murkier. Social scientists apparently think they can put some of this "swarm-mind" ("hive-mind", whatever) mentality to work in smaller working groups. The hallmarks of this kind of approach are: "decentralized control, response to local cues, and simple rules of thumb."

Apparently, the ideal "swarm"-type thinking "manager" attempts to go in to a situation with no preconceived notions of how a problem is to be handled. S/he goes into the proverbial meeting with blinders on, lets everyone talk it to death, try to see if from all angles and then even engage in secret ballots. To make this work (and sorry, I think I started going sideways there for a minute) the idea is to try to have some basic criteria or simple rules of thumb about how a particular business (or other activity) works, and then try a non-hierarchical approach to solving it. Kinda' smooshy, I know, but I think there is some merit there--at least food for thought, for future research if nothing else.

Okay, What About Law Firms?

My initial thought is that since the legal industry is usually 10-20 years behind business best-practices, that there is a really, REALLY long time-horizon before this stuff gets spouted at ABA seminars. But maybe not. Maybe our own technologies are allowing a sort of bottom-up or side-to-side decision-making already. I mean, lawyers today already stay ubiquitously attached to their blackberrys, the web, the blogosphere, their clients' intranets. Plus, they are working in more and more disparate groups across disciplines and continents. Maybe law firms can sort of leap-frog over the some of the steps (sort of like Thailand not bothering to install telephone land-lines and going directly cellular). It is something to think about. On the other hand, I don't see the legal mind as an essential collaborative process. Rather, the legal imagination is usually conceived of as rather a solo job, with lots of pretend collaboration (usually involving lots of yelling, sneering, badgering or smug side-long glances--especially the smug, side-long glances--you know who you are!).

The Testosterone Factor

On the other hand, humans are not bees and we're not birds either. We are mammals and we do organize ourselves in a more hierarchical (read: social dominance cycle) sort of way. Thus, there is probably an inherent resistance to true de-centralization in smaller groups. Plus, we as "civilized" humans haven't done too bad for ourselves over the past 14 millenia, so we oughtn't be too quick to chuck a working strategy too quickly. At any rate, there is no such thing in a human interaction as "no leader" like in a pigeon or bee model. We do have leaders, even in teams of two or three. On the other hand, taking advantage of new social technologies is also a hallmark of our wonderful species. I'm interested to see what happens next.

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