What business can learn from animals

Dec 09 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Oxford Risk Research and Analysis (ORRA), a new spin-out company founded by Oxford University zoologists, has been created to provide services to businesses who are making decisions related to risks. Intriguingly, among the useful insights into risk management are those gained from studies on animal behaviour.

Over the last 10 years researchers have increasingly come to recognise that decision-makers in business do not simply follow the principles of economics and statistics but are lead by less palpable psychological factors too.

ORRA brings together an unusual mix of expertise, including experts in animal behaviour, economics, sociology, psychology and business. Their combined knowledge has helped them to uncover how people perceive risks and how this influences their decisions and impacts on their business.

ORRA was spun-out through Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s wholly owned technology transfer company.

ORRA’s founders are Sir John Krebs, Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University and Chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency, Alex Kacelnik, Professor of Behavioural Ecology at Oxford University, and Dr Ed Mitchell, Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Explaining how research on animal behaviour has led to the creation of ORRA, Sir John Krebs said: “Human beings and other animals respond to risk in similar ways. The tools we have developed for animal behaviour also work for humans. It turns out that we can get real insights into how businesses respond to risk when they make decisions.

“We show companies how to improve their response to risk and therefore how to make better decisions. Even when people are given the right information, their psychological filters can lead them to the wrong choice. History is littered with examples of companies that were too risk averse or saw risk as a threat rather than an opportunity. That way we help our clients depends on their needs.”

The Behavioural Ecology Research Group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology investigates animal and human decision-making with the tools of experimental psychology and of evolutionary biology.

The main experimental models are New Caledonian Crows, and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Some current and previous issues include: tool-making bevaiour (risk-sensitive foraging behaviour, animal decision-making, parental and begging behaviour, and time perception.

Earlier this year, the department’s work received world-wide attention when the New Caledonian Crow Betty was found to show a basic understanding of physics, by bending a piece of wire to retrieve food from a cylinder.

ORRA raises awareness of risk psychology by lectures, workshops and computer software. The company also offers a diagnostic health check on decision-making by its clients and shows them how to improve their judgment on available choices and finding new solutions. The work is specifically tailored to each client. So far, ORRA has carried out work for pharmaceutical, energy and management consultancy companies.

For further information, please contact the press office on 01865 280528.


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i am the co-author of the book-African Wisdom-21 inspirational life lessons from animals

Heinrich China and South Africa