I’m happy to be back here guest-blogging on the Cognitive Edge. I thought it would be good to start my two-week stint by sharing a little of my learning process with Dave Snowden. I first heard him talk — and offer the analogy of birds flocking to describe emergent behavior — at a Delphi Group IKMS conference in 1998. This past Saturday, I accompanied my family to the Boston Museum of Science, where the Modeling exhibit contains the Virtual Fish Tank (the link takes you to the website, where you can see the tank).

The Virtual Fish Tank is a wall-size screen with an animated model of four types of fish (Phil A, Sharky, Flash, and Angel), a deep-sea diver, a food source. There are several computer terminals. Two let you build a fish (as you can do on the web site.) Four additional terminals each control the behavior of one of the fish:

  • Swim closer to (or farther from) other fish like you.
  • Swim in the same direction as other fish like you.
  • Swim slowly or swim quickly
  • Be hungry or not hungry

It’s fun to watch how the fish congregate or disperse depending on how their “controllers” are pushing the buttons. (I’m afraid that when there are a lot of small children, the buttons do get pressed, a lot, randomly.)

I found a quieter station where it is possible to set the rules for the flocking of birds. You can set the rules and see what happens to the birds. Each specific behavior has one or more rules associated with it. You have to know, or guess, which rules to select. For flocking, three rules (I may not have them exact):

  • Avoid the birds closest to you
  • Fly toward the general direction of the flock
  • Steer toward the average position of your nearest neighbors

For roosting, one rule: stay three bird-lengths away from your nearest neighbor

Simulations are great fun to watch, and it’s helpful when the rules are known because of exhaustive and specific research. In research, the behaviors come down to separation, alignment, cohesion, and avoidance. How to translate this into human network terms?

My (very preliminary) thinking:

  • Alignment — network leaders are clear about the purpose and values of the network, and members align themselves with networks whose values they share
  • Separation — leave space for your own thinking
  • Cohesion — balance your weak ties and strong ties
  • Avoidance ?

Hmmm… anyway, Dave set me thinking about all this just 10 years ago, and I’m still learning.

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