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Consortium for Service Innovation

How Does Intelligent Swarming Work?

Some Thoughts on Collaboration

What is collaboration?  We can define it as “A joint effort of a group, aimed at achieving a goal” (Effective Collaboration).

Collaboration is also defined as:

The recursive interaction of knowledge and mutual learning between two or more people, who are working together in an intellectual endeavor toward a common goal, which is typically creative in nature.

Collaboration is something that happens among people, whether we plan it or not. The goal of Intelligent Swarming is to facilitate collaboration by enabling relevant connections. The traditional escalation model is based on hierarchies and silos that actually hinder collaboration, which encourages competition between teams and rewards egos or how much people know.

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” - Steve Jobs

In his book The Smart Swarm, Peter Miller indicates three mechanisms of a smart swarm: decentralized control, distributed problem solving, and multiple interactions. Although Miller’s swarms are derived from nature (ants, bees, fish, and so on), we also see these mechanisms in an Intelligent Swarm: knowledge workers working together to solve issues, which can only happen in interaction with different types of experts.

In Intelligent Swarming, collaboration is self-organized. There is no higher-order authority who tells the knowledge workers to work together and with whom, as often happens in a project team. Knowledge workers operate autonomously; they can ask for help and offer help when it is needed. Managers should allow for this collaboration and provide the tools to support it.

Collaboration in an Intelligent Swarming system can happen in various ways. Globally the options are:

  • asking for help (raising a hand)
  • asking a specific person for help
  • offering help 

Note that not every question or issue needs collaboration, and there is certainly no point in collaborating for the sake of collaboration. Collaboration takes time because more interaction (communication) is needed among the collaborators. When the knowledge worker knows the answer to a question, knows how to reach a solution through troubleshooting, and/or has access to a knowledge article, they should use those resources to solve the issue.  While it is not required for an organization to implement KCS before Intelligent Swarming, having a defined workflow to capture and share knowledge will allow people to solve issues in the most efficient way: first by giving them access to knowledge, and a way to update that knowledge, for known issues.

Intelligent Swarming is how we solve problems in the most efficient way. If we think of the organization as a network of people and content, our goal is to optimize the network by connecting people to content (knowledge articles) for known issues and connecting people to people for new issues. Intelligent Swarming improves our ability to solve new issues with greater accuracy and efficiency by connecting work and people, and people to people with a high degree of relevance.  It is a new way to align people with work.

How Does Intelligent Swarming Work?

Swarming is not a new concept to people who work in support and service organizations.  They have always collaborated on problem solving, and have done so in spite of the processes, structures, and measures we traditionally use in customer support!  What if we facilitated collaboration instead of inhibited it?

Organizations who are good at capturing and delivering known answers through self-service are rethinking their processes and moving assisted support teams from an escalation-based model to a collaboration-based model.  They are collapsing their tiers and creating a single team of people who collaborate on solving requestor issues (play catch), replacing the model of multiple teams that toss issues back and forth through incident routing, rerouting, escalation, and rejection (playing ping pong).

Intelligent Swarming is about getting the people most likely to solve the issue working on the issue as quickly as possible.  While we don’t have tiers in a swarming environment, we do differentiate between different types of skills. We seek to engage the most appropriate or relevant skill(s) for a customer issue based on what we know about the issue and what we know about the customer (some are experts, some are novices).

At the highest level, we can think about generalists and specialists. Some issues are poorly defined and require lateral thinking skills and an ability to talk to the customer in their context. This is the value of the generalist; they help define the problem when the customer cannot. A good generalist helps define the issue in such a way that we can identify the specialist skill needed. However, if the problem is well defined, we may be able to identify the specialist(s) that would be best able to resolve the issue, without the help of a generalist. There is a great efficiency gain in getting work to the best possible resource as quickly as possible.

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In a swarming environment, the person who takes ownership of the issue owns the issue until it is resolved. They may engage others in the process of solving the issue, but they don’t lose touch with how the issue is resolved. This is how collaboration enables skill development and, more importantly, this is how we create knowledge workers who are both generalists and specialists! In a tiered model, knowledge workers don't have the opportunity to develop the range of skills that are most valuable to the organization.

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What's Different

We can think of the old, linear, tiered structure as streaming and the new collaborative model as swarming. Unfortunately, a collaborative process doesn’t align with the way most organizations think about their people or their processes. Over the years, a rigid hierarchy has emerged among tiers, with a strong sense of “them and us,” and arbitrary boundaries that can only be crossed by escalation. The transition from a streaming model to a swarming model is not easy. It is a significant change in that we are taking apart the social hierarchy of service and support. The idea that anyone in support could “earn the right" not to have to talk with customers (a common attitude in higher tiers) is a ridiculous notion.  Customer support is, after all, about supporting customers.

Swarming also requires that we give up the highly siloed and compartmentalized structures we have created.  Too many organizations have become so enamored with their internal process and service levels between tiers that they have adopted the dysfunctional practice of “rejecting” an incident.  Clearly, they are more focused on their niche of the process and their niche measures than on solving the customer’s issue. The only service level that matters is the one with the customer. By contrast, in a swarming model, we don’t reject customer issues.  We pursue their resolution with enthusiasm: we choose to help.

Traditional Tiered Support Model Intelligent Swarming Model
Silos and hierarchies Network
Assigned Opt-in
Pre-defined, linear process Emergent, loopy processes
Escalation based Collaboration based
Measure activity Measure value creation


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