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The DARPA Collaboration Experiment and What it Means for Your Organization

Posted by on December 20, 2012

In 2009, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, put forth an interesting challenge.  They were going to place 10 red, anchored, 8 foot tall weather balloons across the United States and have teams compete to see who can identify the location of all ten balloons first; the winner gets $40,000…that’s it.  No other information was disclosed aside from the fact that somewhere in America there were 10 giant red balloons hovering somewhere.

Teams from across the country competed but in the end MIT won the contest, they identified all 10 balloons in under 9 hours, how?

MIT created an incentive program where they rewarded people for information on the balloons.  If you saw the balloon and reported it you received 2k, if you told someone about the contest who then knew a location of a balloon you received 1k and so on and so forth.  The interesting part of the exercise is how this information spread throughout the country in just a few hours.  I’m sure you know what I’m going to say…it spread through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

There were three key lesson learned from this experiment:

  1. Social media allows communication and interaction at a mass level
  2. Social media can be used as a valuable data source
  3. Social media can be used in many ways to solve diverse problems
  4. The effectiveness of crowd-sourcing across boundaries

This really gives you something to think about when considering enterprise social networks and being able to connect and engage your workforce.  Organizations today have distributed teams and collectively have access to enormous amounts of information and employee ideas which can be used to solve problems and identify new opportunities.  It may be a trivial comparison but if a team from MIT is able to track down 10 balloons in random locations in the country (again, mainly through social media), think about the things your employees can come together to do.  Even though the incentive that the MIT team created proved to be a useful motivator, we need to remember that the consumer web is not the same as the enterprise.

These types of experiments are valuable examples of how the collaborative technologies and strategies we have today are dramatically impacting and changing the future of work.  If you were to think back just 8 years ago before we had many of the social media platforms that we have today; this balloon problem would have virtually been impossible to solve.  This is the power and the value of connection and collaboration.

I think perhaps one of the clearest things this shows us is the strength of weak ties and power of networks.  The reason the challenge was won was not because of who the team at MIT knew, but because of who they didn’t know.  It was won because they created weak ties with people; and what greater way to form these weak ties at scale than through social media.  The exact same thing is true within organizations.

Weak ties are people outside of your direct network that you can have some sort of a connection with (for example Twitter followers or Linkedin connections).  These weak ties can be leveraged to solve problems such as finding information, getting answers to a question, or locating a subject matter expert.

Whether your organization is small (Chess Media Group for example is just a handful of people) or large (some of our clients have hundreds of thousands of employees) one thing is clear; there is tremendous value in collaboration and being able to connect people and information, anytime, anywhere, and on any device.




  • As a strong believer in the Strength of Weak Ties and the power of networksI find this experiment very interesting.

    That said, the experiment also points out something of equal or even greater importance: You need a purpose or task to really show the value and power of networks – the more specific the better.

    Networks matter but networking for networking’s sake is merely a sophisticated way of procrastinating…

    • Hi Martin,

      Absolutely, great point. In this case there was only one goal, find the balloons. In the enterprise however there are many goals not just from corporate but for individuals. Completely agree that networking just for the sake of it might not give much value aside from just personal enjoyment.

      Thanks for the comment!