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From Ross Gardler <>
Subject Listening to the Bees
Date Thu, 22 Dec 2011 16:55:39 GMT
Today I read a fascinating article about how bee swarms behave like
neurons in the human brain [1]. Whilst reading it I realised that a
healthy open source community also behaves in the same way.

When a bee swarm is seeking a new home it needs to act quickly. They
send out scouts who discover a number of potential sites. When they
return to the swarm they start dancing. This dance tells the other
bees where the site is.

An open source project facing a difficult decision will often ask the
community for its opinion. In a large community there will often be
many opinions. The problem for community members and bees alike is
choosing the right option.

Bees behave in a fascinating way. They have "sender scouts" who take
control of the situation. First they observe the dances of some of the
scouts. After a short time they tell some of the scout bees to stop
dancing and their attention turns to other dancing bees.  Amazingly,
this is exactly what happens in the brains of monkeys as they make a
decision. Inhibitor neurons will "stop" information from some parts of
the brain so that more "attention" can be paid to some signals.

This phenomenon, in both bees and neurons, serves the same purpose. It
prevents decision-making deadlock in the face of too much information
to process.

For bees, it seems that stopping the dancing is not equivalent to
saying "no your option is not appropriate." It is, in fact, a way of
saying "thanks for your info, lets consider these other options, we
may get back to you". A healthy open source community behaves in the
same way. Rather than endlessly debating the same points they will
actively close down that part of the discussion and move on to
consider other options that have not yet been heard.

At some point though, a decision needs to be made. Once the sender
scouts have identified a "quorum" of scouts all indicating the same
nesting site a new stop signal is sent out. This one says "stop
dancing, it is time to fly." The decision has been made.

Once again this is how a decision is made in a healthy community led
project. Once a clear consensus around one of the options the
community can engage that consensus and get on with implementation. Of
course, community led projects are a little different. In bees there
is no discussion after the consensus signal has been made. In open
source there might still be some discussion, but often it is futile.

I think Bees have at least two lessons for open source developers. For
those of us who are very vocal we need to remember that being asked to
make space for others does not mean "shut up you are wrong". And those
who find it hard to make their voices heard need to remember the
sender scouts, the ones who martial informed decisions in bees, will
often issue a "stop" call - don't be afraid to do so yourself.

If this decision making model works for Bees and Brains, I suggest it
works for communities too. I'm going to think hard before I next post
to a discussion on a mailing list - "do I have a new point or should I
just stop dancing and let the others show their stuff".



Ross Gardler (@rgardler)
Programme Leader (Open Development)

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