How Can We be More Efficient? Let’s Ask Ants

If you’ve ever worked in an office, I’m sure you’ve experienced moments of extreme frustration with the number of meetings you have to attend, and the fact that they make you feel less productive rather than more. You’ve probably also had to deal, at some point in your career, with a boss who is far too involved, or not involved enough. And you’ve probably also faced some major gaps in communication, or worse, a complete breakdown in communication. Even the best of organizations can be plagued by these kinds of glitches, and it seems to be one of those inevitable problems every workplace faces – how to maintain the right balance of communication and collaboration while also getting your work done.

And that’s where we can turn to ants, apparently, as Fast Company reports:

know that scientists are serious about recruiting ants to improve human collaboration. Ants pull off remarkable feats of collective cognition and action with no one (not even the queen) running the show. Despite possessing tiny brains, the world’s roughly 11,000 species of ants regularly construct massive colonies, share food, repel intruders, and formulate efficient foraging strategies without the help of a single memo or meeting.

The secret is uncoordinated decision making. Ants perceive and react to the world through the lens of colonies’ thousands (or millions) of tiny interactions, rather than a single agent’s directions. This collective intelligence is far more efficient and effective than any individual. In a way, ant colonies act as an enormous brain: Each individual is analagous to a neuron in the human brain. Intelligence is embedded in the interaction of the many parts.

The analogy of the neuron network in the human brain is a compelling one, suggesting that while one ant alone might not be particularly impressive or intelligent, as a colony they’re practically genius. But how does this apply to an organization made up of humans? After all, we don’t communicate through smell and pheromones – at least not consciously and certainly not about work – and we tend to have far too strong a sense of individuality to act as one like ants tend to. There’s an answer to that as well – Ant Algorithms:

Ant algorithms are already a thriving industry in computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But human groups tackling complex problems also face dilemmas similar to ants: how to make efficient, accurate decisions among many compatriots. So scientists at Wayne State University drafted ant-inspired algorithms to find the optimal balance between the time spent on planning and execution when moving a product from concept to market. Kai Yang, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Wayne State, used mathematical models of ant behavior–“non-discrete ant colony optimization” in the scientific lingo–to model the creation of a mobile phone product on time with the highest levels of quality.

“You need to find the sweet spot of ‘right amount of communication, at right time,’ and ‘good quality’ to make the whole work together seamlessly,” says Yang by email. Corporate teams waste significant time coordinating among different groups. Managers must always decide (usually sub-optimally) on the tradeoff between time spent in meetings (potentially wasting time) and building something (potentially locking in mistakes). Yang and his team applied how information is transferred among ants using long-term pheromone trails (chemical messages) to disparate project teams. The goal: to minimize the hypothetical product development cycle time at the lowest possible cost.

Yang and his team have developed a model to help organizations streamline their processes and negotiate the correct amounts of time to dedicate to actually working and meetings. How effective and easy this will be to actually implement remains to be seen, but nevertheless, the idea of learning from other creatures is extremely compelling. After all, humans have only worked in big teams for a few millennia (and have walked the planet for about 200,000 years), while ants’ expertise working in tight-knit groups for the last 100 million years might teach us something about collaboration. This is certainly taking biomimicry to whole new level. Thoughts?

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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