Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Management Lessons from Ants

If I ask a question, who is good at running large organizations
A. Man
B. Ant.
I bet, Very few would choose option B.

Ant is an incredible species. They walked on the earth with dinosaurs. They survived conditions that the mighty dinosaurs could not. They have conquered every climate condition on the earth - from deserts to rain forests, from savana to swamps, even densely populated urban areas. They have achieved this by running very large organizations - their colonies - successfully. Usually each colony has a few thousand individual ants but scientists have found colony of ants colonies with millions of ants and stretched over 6,000 km.
( http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/animals/news-beware-ants )
Each colony has to gather the food, feed the young, maintain the nest and defend itself against attacks from competition. In short, it has to perform all the functions that a modern organization has to perform.

This is how the organization works. The queen ant is probably the most significant individual ant but she just lays eggs but does not control the nest or colony. Rest of the Ants are divided in 3 categories based on their primary tasks. There are soldier ants who defend the nest, food gatherers whom we usually notice and nest maintenance ants. As a rule, they perform their own function but if the situation changes say a large stock of food is found or nest is attacked or there is an obstruction near the nest, the ants switch the role. The nest maintenance work is stopped to collect the food or food gathering is stopped to defend the nest so on and so forth.

Older the colony better it is at handling uncertain situations. The colony as a group seems to learn and get better at managing themselves in uncertain conditions. The colonies last for years together but what is most amazing is each individual ant except for queen ant lives only for 40 odd days.

The most astonishing part is this is a leaderless management. There is no single individual ant or a committee who asks the ants to do certain tasks. Each ant seems to make her own decision based on her understanding of the external situation. Also there is continuous knowledge transfer happening within the individual ants. Amazingly, they seem to get it right for over few hundred million years.

As a management professional I am awestruck by this phenomenon. Leaving decision making to individuals and hope that the collective goals are achieved is empowerment of the highest order. In human world we can only dream about such a style of management. We also struggle big time to manage our knowledge, share it with the team and ultimately contribute to Organizational wisdom.

Organizational wisdom is of a significantly higher order than knowledge. The organization has to gain its experience under different external conditions, try out many things, accurately judge what worked and why it worked so that next time similar situation arises its easy to overcome. This in short is organizational wisdom. Most of the companies I interact with are still grappling with managing the knowledge. Organizational wisdom is nowhere on the radar. There are no conscious efforts to build or nurture organizational wisdom.

Ants are able to run very large organizations successfully as they have figured out how to empower the frontline, build organizational wisdom based on their experience and use it to build longevity of the organization. We, humans, have a lot to learn from the ants.
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