Monday, June 26, 2006

Ken Thompson: What's the Buzz?

Ken Thompson (right) with Mario Gastaldi

Bees Do It

Continuing from the last post, another presentation at CTC was given with great charm and wit by blogger and consultant Ken Thompson. The topic: bioteams.

The General Idea

Ken's blog and Nancy White's reporting offer a lot of detail on Ken's very smart work. Furthermore, Ken's charm is impossible to reproduce and should be experienced in conjunction with the persuasive power of his ideas. Because I could never give the full effect, and that would be a pity, here I will be brief.

The Swarm

Ken began by admitting swarms have got a bad name, particularly because one thinks of being attacked by bees or other dangerous insects. The movie industry probably hasn't helped either.

However, he says, nature has sustained teaming for millions of years while we humans have only been working on the project over a few centuries. Ken suggests we learn to bioteam based on the ways organisms team outside human experience.

Based on behaviors of ants, geese, bees, and other non-human examples, Ken summed the main principles in an acronym:
O: Outgoing -- Talk to other team members.
R: Recruit -- even if you're not the group leader, pull in whomever is useful. Don't be tied to roles too rigidly. It's the end that's important.
G: Go! Forage and build networks.
A: Ask
N: Note
I: Investigate
C: Collaborate

What Next?

As Ken quite pointedly noted in his concluding images (a penguin falling through the ice), no model provides a useful solution if imposed direclty and completely relationship on a situation in which a problem resides. In other words, there is never an entirely transparent relationship between a model and life.

However, this said, what might be missing from Ken's otherwise persuasive arguments?

Cultural Norms

In the next round of research, it would be fascinating to see what part national culture and gender play in Ken's theories. For example, Tit for Tat or the notion that if one is betrayed, one retailiates once -- is something Nancy White suggests would sink a team in many cultures outside the US. Futhermore, within national boundaries, businesses and departments have varying cultures of their own. How should these differences be factored in?


Estelle Dodson, Collaborative Technologies Manager for NASA Astrobiology Institute, raised an excellent question: what effect does gender have on bioteaming? Ken replied that he hadn't approached that issue yet but is interested in learning more about it.

My sense is that probably unlike the better part of natural world, it is indeed gender, and not sex, that exists as a variable in the bioteaming model. Gender in humans, a series of beliefs and behaviors, is certainly influenced by one's sex. However, gender is a meeting point of many discourses -- culture, age, heritage, parenting, body type, and so on.

There are gender roles in nature, no question, but they are more consistent than in the human sphere. Educational studies have proved this repeatedly in schools, for example. So how does one articulate the boundaries of gender as a variable in a human study?

It will be fascinating to see what lies under the next stones Ken chooses to turn over.

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