Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ants, Corporations, Complexity, Emergence

Heard on NPR Morning Edition:

Ants, bees, and other colonizing insects have complex organizations similar in many respects to modern corporations. Each ant has a specialized function that varies by age. The young ones tend the queen, middle-aged ants do clean up duty, and the older more experienced ants go out foraging for food. "The queen is really the only one with a dead-end job: laying eggs." Ants can jump over the clean up straight to foraging, similar to overachieving corporate managers. I don't know if the ants have to suck up to whoever is the ant CEO (this actually didn't come up) or not. Actually, it doesn't appear there is a CEO, the colonies are self-organizing. The scientist discussing this was asked about whether ants retire and her answer was that "ant retirement is not pretty." There is a specialized function for some ants, namely corpse disposal.

So in many ways, ant colonies are similar to corporations, but in addition to the presumed lack of a CEO or Board, there are other differences as well. Ant communication is much more efficient than in corporations. The ants communicate through chemical and other means than spread throughout the colony. "There is no email in an ant colony." (Lucky them, and presumably no Facebook or Twitter or texting either.) Another difference is that that there are no ants who get 400-500% more of the goodies than the median ant, while average CEO:median worker pay ratio is something like that. (According to, the Wal-Mart CEO is paid greater than 1000% more than the median worker there.) And presumably, ants don't get memberships in country clubs as part of their executive pay package.

The scientific principles here are complexity and emergence, an extremely important property of self-organizing systems, such as humans and the human "colony."  If you want to learn more, there is a fun site where you can set up your own ant colony. Just don't try to be the CEO.


1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting post and applies to thoughts I have been having regarding organizational structures lately.

    It seems to me that organizational structures that are most sustainable are those that are flexible in organic and dynamic ways thus meeting with the state based complexity of reality.

    I see evidence for this belief within the success of programs such as ACT and ARMHS. These programs are designed to ebb and flow in a state based way that meets with the states of consciousness of client's served (my interpretation of the intent of such programs). Also, I believe one can use MN Alternatives as another excellent example of how when a program or organizational structure ebbs and flows with a state based reality (i.e., client's consciousness) there is a more harmonious outcome for all involved.


Comments are welcome.