Summary by Erin Howry
Master of Accountancy Program
University of South Florida, Summer 2003
The purpose of this article is to illustrate how scientific studies of social insects can be applied to business operations to increase overall efficiency.
Bonabeau and Meyer define swarm intelligence as “the collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects.” Ants, bees, and wasps have been studied by scientists for years. Individually, these insects do not possess the intelligence to enable them to survive on their own. Collectively, however, they use teamwork to effectively find food and shelter to sustain their existence. Bonabeau and Meyer believe there are three traits that social insects have that cause them to be so successful. These characteristics are:
flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment),
robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks), and
self-organization (activities are neither centrally controlled nor locally supervised).
By following simple rules, the resulting group behavior can be quite complex. When applied to a business environment, the most controversial aspect is the concept of self-organization. The concept of employees performing their jobs through self-organization is contradictory to the typical American business which is run from the top-down.
Social insects use a variety of methods to find food and shelter. One method, foraging, is used to find food. A few ants leave the nest in search of food, all the while leaving behind a substance called pheromone. The ant that finds food first will return to the nest, thereby its path will now have twice the amount of pheromone as the other ants. Pheromone works like a chemical bread trail, the stronger the pheromone, the more insects it will attract to follow the path. The colony of ants has now found the shortest route to a food supply by following two simple rules that each individual follows: lay pheromone and follow the trails of others. Telecommunications companies have benefited from this model. For example, Hewlett-Packard has developed a computer program that uses this foraging method to efficiently route telephone calls. The ants have been transformed into software agents that forage the telecom network leaving a digital pheromone in search of the shortest route. The authors note that the internet would be the ultimate scenario to apply the ant foraging rules to where traffic is always unpredictable.
Another approach, known as the “bucket brigade”, is used by ants to carry food back to the nest. The ants pass the food down a chain back to the nest, except the ants do not stand in one spot and wait for the transfer, nor are the transfer points fixed. This methodology helps to compensate for differences in worker efficiency. The workers are constantly moving and no one worker must stop to wait on a slower one. This type of technique has been used by order pickers at a large distribution center of a major retail chain which previously had used a zone approach. Computer simulations have been employed to answer the question of where the fast workers and the slower workers should be placed on the line. By following the simple rules: “Continue picking out products until the person downstream from you takes over your work; then head upstream to take over the next person’s work” the company became thirty percent more productive.
Another application of swarm intelligence may be to seek and exploit new markets by studying how different species of ants attract their nest mates to new food sources There are three ways ants lead each other to new food sources: mass recruitment, tandem recruitment and group recruitment. Mass recruitment occurs when an ant lays pheromone. Tandem recruitment occurs when one ant finds a food source, returns, and vibrates its antennae to convince another ant to follow it. Group recruitment occurs when the ant returns and vibrates its antennae for a group of other ants. These types of recruitment can be applied to different sized businesses, mass recruitment with large businesses, tandem with small businesses and group with medium sized businesses.
Swarm intelligence is an interesting area of study that has lent much insight into ways to improve businesses. The authors state that the applications of swarm intelligence are endless and are only bound by the imagination. Critics of swarm intelligence are those who do not believe that a group of workers can be self managed and at the same time be productive. The most important notion of swarm intelligence, in my opinion, is that it raises questions. In order to constantly improve a business one must challenge the current methodologies to learn and grow. Who would have thought that a group of ants would strike up such a debate?
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