2009/12/01

"Natural", self-organised small units?

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Massively multiplayer online games typically allow individuals to spontaneously form, join, or leave a formal group called a guild. The design of the game encourages players to form such groups (...). Millions of people worldwide log on to the world’s largest online game (...). Indeed, online games are one of the largest collective human activities on the planet and hence of interest from the perspectives of global commerce, security, and even epidemiology. A seemingly unrelated social phenomenon that is also of great concern is urban gangs. Urban gangs have been gaining in popularity among young people both nationally and internationally. There are obvious differences in the settings and history of online guilds and offline gangs, however, the empirical data sets that we have compiled enable us to perform a unique comparative study of their respective grouping dynamics.

Specifically, we used detailed empirical data sets to show that the observed dynamics in two very distinct forms of human activity—one offline activity which is widely considered as a public threat and one online activity which is by contrast considered as relatively harmless—can be reproduced using the same, simple model of individuals seeking groups with complementary attributes; i.e., they want to form a team as opposed to seeking groups with similar attributes (homophilic kinship). Just as different ethnicities may have different types of gangs in the same city in terms of their number, size, and stability, the same holds for the different computer servers on which online players play a given game.

This study got me thinking about small unit organisation from a different angle; self organisation.


The conventional way to build a small unit uses a top-down approach - or even a 'management' approach in which someone completely unrelated to the unit (or even a software) assigns individuals to the unit.

We don't let small units self-organise bottom-up. Temporary small units based on the principle of volunteering are the closest thing to self-organizing small units afaik.


It seems that additional research into self-organising (sociology) at military universities would be well-justified. A "natural" organization or small unit might have significant advantages over one that was built by a bureaucracy. There seems to be a rather innate human predisposition for certain forms of self-organisation even in the modern, urban and Western youth.

Tribal warbands don't have the best reputation for military efficiency, but they have certain strengths nevertheless - and we don't have a ceteris paribus example for a comparison of efficiency between a self-organized military team and a bureaucratically created military team yet.
This area of research could become really, really interesting.


Sven Ortmann
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12 comments:

  1. Not to discredit your idea, I just thought I'd share some thoughts on what originally triggered your interest in this.

    Having played an MMOG myself for quite some time, I can assure you that real bottom-up only happens when the number of people involved and the goal to be achieved are very limited. I was second guild leader for some time, we regularly organised groups of forty people for very complex dungeon fights that took hours to finish (called 'raids'). There's no way you can do that sort of thing 'bottom-up'. Everyone has a very specific role to fulfil, you need a serious commitment for the time it takes, and you have the same bureaucratic BS because people will constantly fight over who gets what iteam if you don't have a system in place that measures each member's commitment (kind of like a currency), which obviously needs to be managed by somebody.

    There are always sacrifices to be made for the success of the guild (how does hours of play each day sound only to prepare for a raid, e.g. to acquire a certain item that only you can get yet is essential for some other person in the guild who just happens to perform a vital role ...) and there's no way you get that from a loose ragtag group of ad-hoc-ishness.

    As I said, limited number of people, limited goal, and you're fine, that's my experience from the virtual world.

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  2. I know this stuff first hand as well, and I think you misunderstand self organisation for anarchy.

    Sure, there's a guild leader, a raid leader, 2nds, pvp leader, diplomat, maybe seven class leaders...the complexity of a successful raid guild can easily exceed the complexity of an infantry company.

    The point is that these guilds exist because they formed themselves. There's no-one telling them to join guild x to perform role y. There's also no-one telling a player to choose this or that class (albeit the guilds limit the recruitment of certain classes and some insist on certain talent specs).

    Besides; I have personal experience in forming an ad hoc pvp team into a serial BG winning team. It took an easily communicatable tactic, a server-wide PvP reputation way beyond mere rank, voice communication and 10-20 minutes tactics briefing.
    The dynamic was in my opinion remarkably similar to tribal warfare.
    The "reputation" factor was also effective in regard to how successful army and army group commanders built their staffs in WW2; the brightest staffers were attracted by leaders with very good reputation.

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  3. I agree with the analysis, and I have a different gaming perspective.

    I've been playing in the competitive gaming for nearly 10 years now from a limited capacity as a player to a team manager. My current team, to which I've been on for 5 years, has won over 6 figures in prizes over the years with me personally raking over 5.

    We've played over a dozen different first person shooters and a handful of real time strategies, and the common theme is bottom up self-organizing. When a new game comes out we usually have a handful of team members who are interested and the ad-hoc process usually follows like this:
    1. Players interested buy the game and begin playing with and against one another
    2. Team is formed with players with the most skill playing on the starting line up. The team leader is self-designated based on time commitment to set up scrims and matches with other teams, this is the extent of the bureaucracy.
    3. Team practices through scrims and competes in matches.
    4. Team talks about strategic and tactics around outcomes of scrims and matches and make changes accordingly.
    5. If needed team kicks out players who are not contributing to the team and takes other players in the gaming community since we had the reputation as one of the best team.
    6. Repeat Steps 3-5.

    While we don't call it the OODA loop, that's basically what it is. A ton of trial and error, lots of scenario planning based on what we have experienced with very little top-down management on how to deal with the tactics and strategy to win the game.

    An anecdote.

    Few years back in an early battlefield 1942 competition it was discovered by a rival team that tanks could aim at a certain pixel in the sky and reliably hit enemy assets all the way across the map in the enemy's base (such as freshly spawned in airplanes). When we first encountered this we were nearly devastated by it. No one had used such a tactic before, but after realizing its potential we would always explore the pixel aiming possibility for every map, often using it to our advantage.

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  4. I haven't read the article yet but this looks quite interesting. Gruendlich's description of his MMOG organization actually is very similar to most criminal networks in structure. Criminals agree on a goal (conduct a robbery), organize a group (via existing social networks of already established members), execute the plan and usually disperse afterwords and form new teams with different members.

    You're right Sven in that usually such groups are highly inefficient. I'm not sure how they'd work in the military sphere but I'd be concerned over such groups having an too narrow of a skill set as people pick others who look/think/train/fight like themselves.

    Of course, I'm sure you could train people how to self organize more efficiently which would be a concept worth exploring.

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  5. "..such groups having an too narrow of a skill set as people pick others who look/think/train/fight like themselves. "

    The article seems to disprove that. The self-organisation actually seems to strive for versatility, not for groups of clones.

    It's an interesting field for research. The authors may have been wrong, of course.

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  6. Very interesting. Let me add just some thoughts.
    - Probably MMOGs consent a great waste of time in trial and errors, impossible for real-life units training. Does this affect this principle?
    - It should be reasonable to think that MMOGs let some (if not all) skills or abilities emerge better than real-life training or, worse, psy/phis scores in testing.
    - The real aim of gmers is FUN; self-organizing for fun is more complelling than self-organizing for work…
    - Gruendlich comment is really interesting, since it shows that there are people that tend to self-organize (or can result successful) carbon copying bureaucratic methods…

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  7. I don't think this is necessarily new. Terrorist organizations, partisan organizations and, as iago points out, criminal organizations often begin the same way. In the first year of the US Civil War there was such a lack of trained personnel that corporals and sergeants were routinely elected in the state militias.

    I think studying that experience to be fruitful. Many Northern state militias, especially those from areas with low population density, were made up of "companies" that were as much small-town drinking clubs as military organizations. When war was declared these companies were called up and formed into regiments. Results were mixed, to say the least. They did better than the rabble of volunteers that flocked to the overexpanded US Army, but not as well as the disciplined prewar Regulars.

    The question is what is your army for? If it is a large army intended to fight other large armies, then victory will depend less on small-unit tactics than on logistics and coordination between units and with supporting arms, along with subterfuge and the pursuit of objectives that are unclear to the soldiers in the subunits.

    This brings up a critical point: gathering some guys together to strike at a target that offers tangible and visible advantages to them is one thing; getting some guys to make a diversionary attack for an unknown purpose is another. What is really different about "self-organized" groups is the conditional nature of their loyalty. Everyone who has commented so far has noted how some members will drop out or be expelled in order to maximize the potential and motivation of the group. In the real world, you have to make an army out of the guys you have. You have to find ways to motivate them even though there is no immediate personal benefit to them risking their lives and you have to develop their skills instead of simply hoping the right sort of guys show up.

    It is not enough to have units that are uniquely capable to carry out tasks. They must also be willing to do so according to someone else's schedule as part of someone else's plan. Little bands of brothers may win firefights but large, impersonal organizations win wars.

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  8. The typical WW2 offensive is documented in history books as an offensive of x divisions vs. y divisions.
    In reality, every such division had two or three regiments, each regiments 2 or 3 battalions, each battalion 2 or 3 companies and every company 2 or 3 platoons up front. In the end, such an offensive was a string of platoons attacking or defending.
    The success depended very much on the small unit proficiency. Historical documentation isn't fair to this.

    I'd like to point out that I don't say that self-organising is necessarily superior, but it seems as if it's worthwhile to complete research on it, for we don't seem to know enough about it and its possible ceteris paribus advantages.

    Our personnel system is a late descendant of late 17th century practices, refined with management methods of the industrial age.
    It's not necessarily the best choice, there may be a technological lock-in at work.

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  9. Very interesting issue!!
    Here my few thoughts...

    First I have no experience in MMOG, but in forming ad hoc teams in the physical game "gotcha"; therefore I was very interesting in the team-building-model from the linked study, especially the results about the LA gang's. But I do not find the variety of attributes/skills the team member are consisting of, when it is not a kinship model. Did they mean only ethnical variety?

    Second my experience from gotcha shows my one possible evidence why "tribal warband’s" are lacking in effective battle performance. It is "battlefield communication", which lead the "warband" to act like a "warband" and not as a bunch of single fighter which share a common enemy. This is crucial in my opinion and is the force enabler on which tactics, marksmanship, leadership and weaponry is building on. This skill is thought in "bureaucratic" units. But when a tribal warband or a criminal gang is exercising this kind of skill in there daily live, like "gang street fighting", "group organized theft or rubbery raids" or the good old hunting, they can become very sophisticated fighting units or at least build a good “battle language and communication skills” that leads to unit cohesion, situational awareness and sophisticated fighting skills. I can imagine that you also can build up such skills with MMOG.

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  10. Interesting comments! The "gotcha model" raises another issue about self-organizing.
    During physical education hours at school, our teacher used to choose two "captains", who chose the other players one-per time-per side. So, the two teams were more or less even and, of course, the worst players were chosen at last.
    This model was OK since we played dodgeball pretending that a) even teams were more profitable than gods vs goofs b) everyone had to play. So, there were "external" respected rules that kept the self-organizing from ruining the aims of the teacher (that were diferent from ours).
    The class divided in dodgeball teams is different from a war band emerging from a tribe; I presume small units are something different from both.
    A war band is formed by some elements of a tribe who feel fit for some tasks; small units are formed dividing all the people in larger units (that's what I've seen during my service in the Navy, I presume it works this way everywhere).
    In a full self-organizing model, what happens of the less fit? Do they form suboptimal small units together?

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  11. The top-down assignment of two organisers isn't really self-organisation.

    The known-to-be substandard players would in full self-organisation most likely be left behind and form their own hopeless group unless they have strong bonds to better players.
    Only about 5-20% of men are really useless as combat troops no matter what niche they try to fit into.


    An interesting feature of self-organisation is that it's less likely that 'duds' stick to leadership positions. Such losers may rise up, but they would be quickly removed if there's enough transparency.

    The introduction of self organisation elements into an army would be a difficult leaning process; I mentioned "technological lock-in" for a reason.

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  12. Well, the western nations elect their commanders-in-chief, don't they? And it seems we've had a fairly high proportion of duds lately.

    It is quite easy for a highly intelligent and persuasive person to become leader and prove hopeless at leadership, which often requires attributes other than raw intelligence or the ability to inspire loyalty. Moreover, people don't seem to learn from this. They will dispose of one fellow who has proven himself a failure and then choose another just like him.

    The top-down organization, it must be admitted, tends to become hidebound and sclerotic, but these are the side effects of its main benefit: that it enables the collection and dissemination of institutional knowledge. It provides a reality check to the hot internal politics of a small group.

    I think that none of us are really arguing from knowledge. Small-group dynamics is a field of serious study in sociology, as is the social dynamics of a crowd. Self-organized groups tend to adopt the behavior of its most extreme elements, which is why so many peaceful demonstrations end in a riot.

    Even in the current large organizations there exist situations in which subordinates cover up the failings of their leaders out of personal loyalty. This problem would be intensified in the self-directed group, where every person feels a personal responsibility for the selection of the leader. People don't like admitting they made a mistake. The higher the stakes, the harder it is to walk away from a bad situation. Every gambling casino in the world depends on this for their profitability.

    I would also direct you to the experience of the Plains Indians (the Dakota and the Cheyenne) who are excellent examples of self-organized armies. Over and over in treaty negotiations the elected elders emphasized how difficult it was to control the young warriors who had small bands of followers and could not be relied upon to obey the treaty. This played into the hands of those who wanted the tribes destroyed, since there were always fresh atrocities that helped the hardliners among the invading Europeans. Worse, the small groups of raiders were useless from a strategic standpoint, since they didn't coordinate their efforts.

    The only major victory for the Plains Indians came when the most respected elder (Sitting Bull) and the most respected warrior (Crazy Horse) reached an understanding an imposed discipline on the tribes, bringing them together to fight as a single organization. If they had done this twenty years earlier the history of the West might have been much different.

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