Supporting stigmergic coordination

This project () involves development of theory and tools to improve the coordination of distributed teams, i.e., groups of geographically-dispersed individuals working together over time towards a common goal. The separation of distributed work generally makes it harder for team members to work together effectively. However, when work products are shared via a computer system, team participants can see the work produced by remote colleagues as easily as from those who are local, and the work can provide information to support team coordination. Specifically, prior research suggests that free/libre open source software (FLOSS) developers use the software code they are developing as a basis for coordinating their work, a phenomenon known as stigmergic coordination. Stigmergic coordination can be more effective and efficient than coordination through explicit discussion, so there could be benefits if it can be used more broadly. The goal of the project is to study FLOSS developers to understand how stigmergic coordination works and to develop a system to enable its use in other settings.

To achieve these goals, a two-phase study is underway: first identifying the socio-technical affordance enabling stigmergic coordination in FLOSS development teams (as exemplars of distributed teams) and similar settings, and second, testing the emerging theoretical understanding by implementing and assessing a system to support stigmergic coordination of distributed work in a new domain.

The study has several expected intellectual contributions. First, the empirical study should provide evidence for (or possibly against) stigmergic coordination as a mode of coordination in distributed work. As well, the study will identify possible negative outcomes from the use of stigmergy. More importantly, the study will identify socio-technical affordances that enable the use of stigmergy. A preliminary analysis has been done based on a literature review. Knowing these affordances will provide a basis for designing shared-work systems that support stigmergy. They will also help in understanding the possibilities and limits on the transfer of coordination mechanisms from open content creation teams to other domains. The study will have several broader impacts. First, being able to implement a novel mode of coordination could be transformative for the conduct of online work and computer-supported work more generally. Second, if it seems that reliance on stigmergy is off-putting for certain potential group participants (women in particular), then the project can study how that happens and potentially mitigate the huge gender gap currently observed in FLOSS development participation in particular and in online groups more generally. The software system to be developed will be released as open source for use in future research (thus contributing to the infrastructure for research) and potentially for use by distributed workers (thus potentially benefiting society).

You can see papers related to this project .