© 2016 by Maciej Workiewicz

The power of the swarm - what insects can teach us about organizing.

March 16, 2015

Can insects teach us something about management? Yes, they can, especially when it comes to understanding self-organizing systems. Yet although insects such as bees, ants and termites, have queens and kings, their societies are far from simple monarchies. In fact, the queen or the king (in case of termites), often doesn’t have a say in the complex matters of the colony.  Instead, basic rules, which has been improved upon by millions of years of evolution, regulate the behavior of individuals. Scientists call it the swarm intelligence.

 

Recently, engineers working side by side with entomologists started applying swarm intelligence to designing biobots - small robots inspired by nature. Here, for example, you can see one such project - TERMES - conducted by the Self-organized Systems Research Group at Harvard). In this video a small, termites-inspired robot swarm, builds a complicated structure, even though the individual robots are only being guided by a few simple traffic rules. In other words - they have no boss.

 

This bossless-ness of a biobot swarm was what makes it particularly fascinating for organization scholars like me. Just think about it: the individual members do not need to have any notion of the global organizational goal. The organization designer, here a sophisticated computer algorithm, analyzes the task and develops a collection of simple traffic rules that guide individual behavior of the members, which then in turn will produce the desired effect.

 

Thus, none of the little robots have any notion of what shape the final building needs to be, i.e. in none of the little “brains” of the individual robots there exists a blueprint of the final structure. There are no managers, no engineers, no coordinators - only basic rules, building materials, and other co-workers.

 

What is even more impressive is that the set of rules is robust to the changes in the environment and therefore can accommodate unexpected events - and adjust. Just like ants or termites, the biobots quickly adapt to the changing environment and remain unfazed by random perturbations. All of this shows the incredible power of complex adaptive systems, where simple rules on the micro level produce surprising results on the macro level.

 

Of course, we can’t simply translate the world of bugs or biobots into that of corporations. But, by analysing the types of tasks that such systems are good at tackling, we can learn something about the limits of applying self-organizing projects teams in companies. We may also gain a little more appreciation for those pesky rules that seem to proliferate in companies. It appears that sometimes they may have true, long-term benefits.

 

So are ants our next management gurus? They definitely can be a source of inspiration. After all, thanks to their swarm intelligence, they’ve managed to master farming millions of years before we did.

 

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