The power of swarms

2010

Far and away the most interesting business book of the year is published this week. Smart Swarm: Using Animal Behaviour to Organise Our World, written by National Geographic reporter Peter Miller, examines what the behaviour of swarms of insects, flocks of birds, and herds of mammals can teach human beings.

Miller points out that ants, bees, fish and reindeer have managed to find solutions to many of the problems that human society seems unable to handle. The biology of how ant colonies or bee hives work are appealing models for organisations and systems, he adds and can also be applied in a business context.

Studies of ant colonies, for example, have aided in the development of computer programs that streamline factory processes, telephone networks, and truck routes. Termite behaviour has been used in recent studies for climate-control solutions, while the US military has modeled a team of robots on the behaviour of schools of fish.

Another example that jumps out is that of bees. In a piece for CNN, Miller explains that "when they need to find a new home, scout bees search the neighborhood for the best real estate. If one of them thinks she's found the perfect spot, the others don't jump on the bandwagon. Instead, each examines the site for herself (honeybee workers are all female). If they agree that it's a good site, they go back to the swarm and lobby for it, too.

"The decision-making turns into a competition to see who can rally the most support, and, in the end, the group as a whole almost always picks the best site. They have to, says biologist Tom Seeley of Cornell, because the group's survival is riding on it."

There's an interesting parallel here with recent research about the way we humans make decisions and come up with innovations.

Earlier this year, a group of researchers published findings that showed how group dynamics - and group brainstorms - are the enemies of businesses trying to encourage creativity and innovation.

Through a series of experiments, they found that more and better ideas are generated by giving people time to brainstorm on their own before discussing them with their peers - a process that it seems honeybees would understand well.

The reason that round-the-table brainstorming is less effective is the fact that the hierarchical nature of traditional corporate structures means that in a typical brainstorming meeting, the boss is always right. What's more, genuine innovations are often killed by the power of "groupthink".

And the animal kingdom also provides some powerful evidence that management-laden hierarchies are not necessarily the best way to run complex organisations. As Miller explains:

If you take a close look at an ant colony, similarly, you might be surprised by how much work is getting done. Maintenance ants are repairing the entrance hole. Trash collectors are hauling out garbage. Foragers are looking for food, and patrollers are keeping an eye on the neighbors. The whole thing looks like an efficiently organized factory.

The big surprise is that there aren't any bosses running this factory -- no managers, foremen, supervisors, senior vice presidents or CEOs. Nobody reports to the queen, whose only function is to lay eggs. From top to bottom, nobody's telling anybody else what to do. Yet the whole enterprise works just fine.

As Miller concludes, what a tragedy it is that so few human enterprises are able to harness the power of individuals in this way to make them feel smarter and more capable instead of making them feel like powerless drones.

Older Comments

This book sounds great. I am SOOO going to read this.

Daniel Bobinski