Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Democratic Beehive

The Beehive: A symbol of productivity, tireless work, discipline, frugality, order, harmony, industry, and the sweet results of turmoil.

To some though, the beehive is also an example of why hierarchy is the most productive system of industry. It serves as an example of how mindless beings that submit themselves to order will thrive.

In real life, however, bees are anything but mindless drones working under a dictatorial queen bee. The title of "queen" is often confused with what the queen bee actually does. In no way does the queen bee make leadership choices. Instead, she is treated with special care by the other bees so that she might do her job of laying over half-a-million eggs per year.

The reality is that bees are an amazing example, in nature, of how consensus, union and intelligent cooperation lead to better decision making. “One of the most important group decisions made by a bee colony is where to locate the nest. This particular type of decision making in bees is well studied. The colony sends out a small number of scouts to survey the environment for good nest locations; typically, scouts comprise about 5 percent of the total group. When the scouts return to the colony with information, those who found a more promising site signal their finding by dancing at a higher intensity and for a longer period of time.

As a result of this social signaling, more scouts are recruited to the better sites. After additional scouts explore the better sites and return to signal their findings, the dancing of the scouts skews further in favor of the better sites. Eventually so many scouts are signaling in favor of the best site that a tipping point is reached, and the entire colony picks up and moves. Social signaling, communicated by higher activity, causes the information from individual scouts to be communicated, weighted, and pooled, iteratively recruiting a larger and larger fraction of the colony, until a group consensus is reached.”
Alex Pentland. Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (Kindle Locations 695-702). Kindle Edition.

Studies of bee colonies show that over 99 percent of the time scout bees, through consensus, choose the highest-quality nesting site available. 

Similar social signaling is used by worker bees, who make up about 85 percent of the colony, to find the best nectar locations (click here to watch video). The direction of their dance indicates the direction of the nectar source, and the intensity and length of dance persuade other worker bees of the best nectar locations.

Consensus, democracy, division of labor and division of management are the governing philosophies of a bee colony. Furthermore, by dividing decision making and decentralizing it to those groups that are best qualified to make particular decisions, bees are able to fully utilize their collective intelligence.

Further learning:

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

I recently read this article by Clayton Christiansen out of Harvard entitled, “How will you measure your life?” It is what he tells his students on the final day of his class.

One of the items that he mentions sticks out to me. It reads as follows:

“One of the theories, . . . . . how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more [people think] that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people."

I’m sure you can see why it sticks out.