2013-02-25

Co.Exist

Ditch Time-Wasting Meetings By Turning Your Office Into An Ant Colony

Scientists have started applying lessons from how ants operate to the corporate world. The result: fewer meetings, more time working, and tasks completed much more quickly.

Ants may free us from that scourge of modern society: the meeting (and maybe even the overbearing boss).

If that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, 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.

Ant algorithms (PDF) 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.

"Finding the right balance between 'doing the work’ and 'communicating with each other’ will achieve wonderful results in job completion time and quality," says Yang. His team’s study, which appears in the International Journal of Production Research, cut project cycle completion times by 17% (158 to 130.5 days), while raising costs by only 8%. Yang found that it was far more efficient to make normally separate, sequential tasks (such as communication and execution) a parallel process, rather than strive to keep a perfect balance between them. This incurs some extra costs (rework and extra communication), but the system as a whole functions more efficiently.

How will all this fare in the real world? The model was necessarily oversimplified, so there are plenty of ways for it to derail in the wild. But since humans have only worked in big teams for a few millennia (and have walked the planet for about 200,000 years), ants’ expertise working in tight-knit groups for the last 100 million years might teach us something about collaboration.

Besides, Yang says he was seeking to test something he had observed in his own experience. "We actually worked with a complex product development process for a big international corporation a few years ago," he said. "We intuitively found the same thing, and used our finding to drastically reduce the company’s product development time. This paper validates our intuitive finding in a scientific way."

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15 Comments

  • Benjamin Farahmand

    I recommend you read Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Life. It's been insightful and helpful in my professional experience.

  • NSNY

    So many books and theories on the subject of how to get people to work better and be more productive, and I have yet to ever see what is probably the biggest workplace issue, ever addressed. That is - workplace politics. They're debilitating for employees, keep staff on edge, and it just flat out kills productivity and dedication to the job. Nothing against the article written here, it just made me remember how no one talks about workplace politics and that ants simply don't have any. : )

  • Judi Hembrough

    What an interesting study subject. I know that striking a
    balance between communication and getting work done is certainly a challenge
    facing businesses of all sizes, including many of the small businesses I work
    with. Technology like cloud collaboration such as Dropbox or Skype, for
    example, is a resource I’ve seen be helpful for striving to reach that balance.
    I work at Plantronics to help small businesses achieve efficiency and success
    with their communication needs. Perhaps not to the extent of this ant research,
    but I’ve helped study small business needs and have put together a guide with
    some tips on other ways for small businesses to be efficient with their communications:
    http://bit.ly/UFnaws.

  • Chris Reich

    "His team’s study, which appears in the International Journal of Production Research, cut project cycle completion times by 17% (158 to 130.5 days), while raising costs by only 8%."

    These must be very low budget projects. 8% cost rise is substantial to save a few days cycle time. Now, if we're talking about a medical treatment, reducing the time to wellness would be worth the cost. But in general, I would question the value of "speed" if it comes at such a high price.

    These days I am more worried about what we are doing rather than how fast we are doing it. Too much focus on cheap and not enough on quality.

    Ants do amazing things. But ants are doing what their antcestors did 100 years ago. We humans are doing ever more complex tasks.

  • Nosybear_Demon_at_Large

    Interesting metaphor.  Now let's look at real ants.  Two of them will take opposite sides of a piece of leaf and pull on it until one or the other dies.  Resemble anything in the modern office?  Ants will commit mass suicide to enable a chosen few to cross a body of water, even if there's a way around it a few feet away.  Resemble staff cuts?  Ants execute processes programmed into them by millions of years of evolution rather than improving (except by evolution, which does resemble Lean methodologies).  Sound like your production staff?  Ants have meetings - just watch them swarm a crumb.  The problem of implementing ant methodologies in human offices are twofold:  First, you're playing catchup - we've already figured out how to work like ants and second, humans have a "WIFM" circuit ants do not.  The thousands of ants who drown so the few can cross the water do not care, while the humans laid off so the CEO can get their bonus do.  Moral of this missive:  Be careful of overextending your metaphor.

  • Robin Schuil

    Check out Valve's 'Handbook for New Employees'. They are a great example of a company that has no clear reporting structures or bosses telling people what to do. Instead, they operate much like an ant colony as described in this article.

  • Shauna Stacy

    Ants have one-track minds and a primary collective purpose: colony survival. Obviously, humans have the same desire to survive, but the link is not so cut and dry between mentioning a change in project timeline to another team and species (or company) survival. Even algorithms to improve communication would still need C-suite guidance to connect the dots, and top-down commitment for the algorithm to mean anything.

  • brandongadoci

    I think that is the point though. The job of leadership is to make sure that all of the employees know and believe in the mission - and to create an environment where they are free to pursue that vision in their own way, with as little distraction as possible. 

    All the Ants know the mission is to survive and they obviously believe in survival. We can take cue's from the colony here in how we lead organizations. The more the employees believe in the mission the more likely they are to work together to accomplish it. The trick is getting that type of passion around a mission with writing it on the wall and asking employees to recite it at the quarterly meeting. The queen Ant isn't writing "We must survive" in the dirt to remind the ants. In fact we, as humans not ants, have a tendency to believe those types of *missions* to be inauthentic which causes a reaction contrary to what leadership wants. 

    I would argue that this would require bottom up commitment - not top down.

  • CitizenWhy

    I'm a great believer in algorithms. They operate anyway, in all things that have motion, so we might as well bring them to the surface and when appropriate replace them with more effective ones.

    Human beings, unlike ants, are born with the primary purpose of having sex and also living with nurturing and love or at least affection or respect. Yet human beings regularly cast everything else aside in order to get work done. So an algorithm to make wrk go better sounds good to me. 

  • Ron Taylor

    Realize that with ants there is a pecking order similar to the India Cast society.  One is born into a role and way of life never to change.  I am all for this as long as I am the queen.  Now slaves work for my good and at your deteriment.

  • Noname

    definitely let's all try to emulate ants for the corporate good.  who needs individuality when we can all vastly improve the bottom line for shareholders by being an ant? wait, what?! no! to quote the movie waking life "I mean, it's like we go through life with our antennas bouncing off one another, continuously on ant auto-pilot with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient polite manner ... I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don't want to give that up. I don't want to be an ant, you know?"  

  • SPGrall

    And let's not forget what computer algorithms applied to robots at Cyberdine systems model equals = Terminator (movie talk to anyone who didn't get the connection).

    Overly zealous computer programming and business exec ants trying to impress themselves and their corporations or personal businesses (to get ahead of the rest and receive due privileges) with new amazing productivity efficiencies have found ways of replacing humans with robotic systems for generations now....but no new work/life paradigm has been created to engage all the millions out of work individualistic ants (both highly skilled and unskilled....educationally speaking)....

    Humanitarian evolvement has to progress to counterbalance the past decades of the Rise of the Machine. Let's just hope the collective intelligence ants are all happily satiated in this Brave New World espoused by our journalistic comrade Mr. Coren.