Late last week, my house was invaded by Argentine ants. That happens every year after a bout of high temperatures in late summer, so I know what to do. I set ant baits (Home Depot sells the only brand effective with this variety) and have to be patient and live with the invaders for a couple of days.
So I had been observing them on my kitchen floor and worked on this post, but was preempted a couple of day ago by another “Business Lessons from Ants” post by Nbuduisi Ekekwe on HBR.
This morning I decided my story is a bit different and worth publishing. So here it is.
I imagine that for an ant, looking for a small crumb of food on my kitchen floor is comparable in dimension to me searching from a hot-dog cart in an area the size of Manhattan. But working as a collaborative community ants can accomplish that task with very surprising efficiency.
A few dozen ants enter the kitchen and explore following a seemingly random pattern. It could take an hour, but eventually one of them finds the food crumb. She then starts a new search, for another fellow scouter. Once they find each other, they briefly touch antennas “I’ve found food”. The original ant traces back to the food (leaving a chemical trail that others can follow), the second one start looking for the next scouter to spread the news in the same manner.
That is when the magic happen. Within 5-10 minutes of the first discovery, the simple algorithm converges quickly. An obstacle-optimized highway forms between the point where they enter the house and the piece of food. An army of hundreds of thousands (enough to fill half of my vacuum cleaner canister) then invade the kitchen.
I would assume each ant is pre-programmed with a very simple algorithm and has no visibility of the higher-level mission. But using a very collaborative method and a simple and descentralized communication method, the colony can explore vast areas, and very efficiently create a path from newfound food and the nest.
Observing ants brought a few thoughts to my mind:
- Classical business rely on work hierarchy, segmentation, specialization and competition to execute
- Ants show us that equal individuals working collaboratively, without central command (well, there is a queen, but she doesn’t seem to be very dictatorial), can execute tasks that are far beyond the ability (or even the understanding) of each individual
- Are we wired to collaborate and share information like ants seem to be? I believe we are “social”, but to a lesser degree than ants are.
- The successful implementation of social business models will depend on our ability to learn some of the lessons ants can offer.
There are many other lessons and thoughts that can emerge from observing ants. But I had to stop to cook dinner.