Learning from the organisation of animals – from swarm to loner.

We don’t often think about the organisational structures in the animal kingdom – at least if we don’t happen to be a biologist. But fact is, that we as humans belong to the very same kingdom that all other animals belong to: Animalia.

The simple hypothesis here is, if we belong to the same kingdom as other animals, we can learn a lot by observing the success rate of the various forms of organisation. Are man-made systems present in the animal kingdom as well? Here are the main categories with a few words on the >> applicability of the relevant form of organisation to humans:

magnetic termite mounts - (c) Tobias Stöcker 2005Swarm: Ants and termites are well-known examples of swarm animals. Their ability to self-organise themselves to achieve a collective task poses a lot of mysteries and is subject of interest to many people that try to organise massive amounts of individual activities, e.g. in computing.

>> applicability to humans is low if we want to do it without artificial intelligence. Given a self-conscious spirit, humans have a strong sense of individuality, what is the one thing that does not come in handy if you are an ant. Therefore, I believe that human consciousness and swarm intelligence don’t go together well and lessons learned from swarm behaviour should not be applied to human processes. However, for non-human processes like computation and hybrid forms of computer-aided human processes, it might be a rich source of inspiration.

herd of goats - (c) Tobias Stöcker 2008Herd, flog, school and others: Cattle is part of most of our European rural areas, but across the globe, there are many sorts of mammals, fish and birds that organise themselves in herds, flogs or the other specific denominations of the same phenomenon. It can be distinguished from the category of swarm (as it is used here) by the absence of a collective task. Herds don’t build shelters (although some bird species build collective nests, making it disputable to which category they should belong to) or support each other in gathering food. They come together for protection, mating and travelling. Compared to swarms, one could say, that individuals in herds have equal tasks, but not the same task.

>> herd behaviour can be witnessed in groups of humans. As they say, very intelligent people can become very stupid the very instant they start doing what other around them do. Just think about a crowded room with one exit and someone shouts ‘fire’. For sociologists and other people that want to either understand stupid human activities or prevent them, herd behaviour is a great study. Marketing and advertisements are prime examples of how you can put those insights to good commercial uses. For organisations that want to achieve something with a group of people, herd behaviour is not such a good teacher, as herds don’t cooperate towards a shared goal, other than survival.

wolfpack_from_www.all-about-wolves.comFamily and Pack: Wolves, elephants and lions can often be found in family groups. One can observe a stronger cooperation than within herds when it comes to hunting, security and bringing up young ones. The number of members are relatively small and enable each member to know every other one. A family is a social form of organisation, with internal hierarchies, heredity, a distinct identification with the group and interaction with other families of the same species.

 >> humans used to value strong family bonds and continue to need social interaction. I use the past tense with respect to family bonds, as that particular bond has become less pronounced in modern times. Humans, especially in the Western societies, have sufficient means to be able abandon the security of families, leaving cultural, religious and traditional motives as the main driver for family bonds.

The degree of intelligent cooperation within animal families however can be of great interest to human organisations. Comparing it to modern commercial organisations, we can see parallels of hierarchy and identification, but see differences in the numbers of individual members and the degree of cooperation. On the one hand, large organisations have accomplished great collaborative tasks like building skyscrapers. But on the other hand, such large organisations are also characterised by an exchangeability of individual members, in contrast to family structures. The connected fear to be cast out of the group is one of the root causes of friction between employees and managers (the hierarchical leaders of the family). Looking at family structures in the animal kingdom, the conclusion might be that family businesses are the most natural form of organisation with the strongest evolutionary evidence of success.

cassowarie - (c) Tobias Stöcker 2008Solitude: Cats, spiders and the Tasmanian Devil are examples of solitary animals. They usually only meet other members of their species for mating and often claim a territory to be their own. They are mostly predators, hunting for their food and are not very skilled in cooperation.

>> Humans are not solitary beings by design. Throughout history, the examples of hermits and loners give evidence to the fact that humans might be able to live a solitary life, but their dim chances to produce offspring might have favoured the more social individuals. Natural selection at its best. When comparing solitary animals to humans, I find few useful parallels. Although artists and other geniuses are sometimes less apt in a social context, solitude for humans appears advisable only for short periods of time. For organisations, this form of animal organisation appears of little use.

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