Birds, bees, ants and us

“Just what valuable insights do ants, bees and other social insects hold?” Dr. Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer argue about it in their HBR paper on ‘Swarm Intelligence‘ way back in May 2001. Ants helped Southwest Airlines gain annually something like $ 10 million (none of which, I am sure, went back to ants). Southwest used ants foraging methods to solve their routing problems and thus saved on freight transfer, workload, and overnight transfer. And termites? They engineer, collectively, mounds which maintain ambient temperature and have right levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Dr. Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer say “Social insects work without supervision. In fact, their teamwork is largely self-organized, and coordination arises from the different interactions among individuals in the colony. ..The collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence”.

And then they add: ” In essence, we believe social insects have been so successful..because of three characteristics: flexibility, robustness and self-organization…In fact, the major recurring theme in swarm intelligence is that even if individuals follow simple rules, the resulting group behavior can be surprisingly complex and remarkably effective. And, to a large extent, flexibility and robustness result from self-organization”. The authors write how Jim Donehey, the CIO of Capital One, consulted the authors when he wanted the growing IT department to break free from command-and-control model (which, among other questionable things, don’t scale) and assimilate new employees in the organization. Donehey became intrigued with the way social insects can perform tasks efficiently using just a few fundamental rules. Donehey crafted four rules, put them in practice and got it ingrained. A year later Capital One’s IT department had an attrition rate of 4% when IT industry’s average was 20%.

Dr. Thomas.D.Seeley, professor at Cornell University, makes the case with honeybees in his acclaimed book ‘The Honeybee Democracy‘. Dr. Seeley dispels the common misunderstanding right at the outset that the colony is governed by a benevolent dictator – the queen mother. The work of the hive is indeed governed by the workers themselves who share a common goal. Through a network of shared information and cues, they achieve what Dr. Seeley calls an ‘enviable harmony of labor without supervision’. When it comes to hunting a house in spring or early summer, a group of about ten thousand bees make a collective and democratic decision using a repertoire of waggle dances, and invariably lands up in the best site for house. He writes: “…inside each teeming beehive is an exemplar of a community whose members succeed in working together to achieve shared goals… these little six-legged beauties have something to teach us about building smoothly functioning groups, especially ones capable of exploiting fully the power of democratic decision making.”

Dr. Seeley compares a honeybee swarm to neurons in human brain (1.5 kilos of honeybee to 1.5 kilos of neurons) and shows how both achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective decisions. It seems that decision-making process is essentially a competition between alternatives to accumulate support (e.g., neuron firings and bee visits), and the alternative that is chosen is the one whose accumulation of support first surpasses a critical threshold. And consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them, and collectively picking the best decision towards the common goal.

Dr. Seeley posits: My analyses of collective decision-making by honey bee colonies indicate that a group will possess a high level of SI (swarm intelligence) if among the group’s members there is:

  • diversity of knowledge about the available options,
  • open and honest sharing of information about the options,
  • independence in the members’ evaluations of the options,
  • unbiased aggregation of the members’ opinions on the options, and
  • leadership that fosters but does not dominate the discussion.

Such findings can go a long way in helping organizations accomplish one of the most challenging and critical thing – building self-organized teams.

Peter Miller begins his The Smart Swarm with (again!) Southwest Airlines wrestling with a question if they need to abandon its long-standing policy of open seating in planes. Eventually Southwest found the answer by using virtual ants to find the best way to board a plane. When talking about the coordinated behavior of a flock of starlings, Peter Miller explains the key that adaptive mimicking along with self-organization, diversity of knowledge, and indirect collaboration, is the fourth principle of a smart swarm. The Smart Swarm covers ants, bees, termites, birds, locusts and wonders what can our organizations learn from their way of collaboration.

Getting teams self-organized might be a utopian concept for organizations trying to be agile, or implementing agile/Scrum way of software development. This is particularly challenging to hierarchical organizations with long history of command and control. And talking about self organized teams, it’s a thin line separating harmony and chaos. So better, as some say, to be self-directed. In any case, it will go a long way for human organizations to understand what the insects and birds know about self-organization that we don’t.