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The Wisdom of Bee's for Workplace 4.0 (updated)

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Ants, Spiders and Bees are all wondrous creatures & each is a a mini-miracle in its own right. Ants build massive homes, can lift 50 times their own body weight and support huge colonies. Spiders create a substance purely of themselves with a tensile strength comparable to steel. Bee’s gift the entire ecosystem, creating for us a delicious food and a natural antiseptic. As a set, these creatures also give us a useful metaphor to understand the world of knowledge workers today.

Knowledge workers are foragers too

Animal similies, often from classical Greece, have been re-popularised in recent years by writers like David Epstein and Jim Collins. The original reference to ‘Ants, Spiders and Bee’s’ dates back however to Francis Bacon, the Father of Empiricism. He described scientist 'ants' as “men of experiment who collect and use (information)’. Bacon saw no dichotomy between science and philosophy and likened spiders to theorists and ‘reasoners’ i.e. scientists who produce insights by careful deliberation of observations. However, he reserved his greatest praise for ‘bee'-type scientists who combined the data from ants with the rational approach of spiders to transform concepts and principles into ‘value-add’ for all of humanity.

A prophetic warning

As the S.T.E.M. disciplines inevitably specialise more, each looks at the world through a narrower frame and speaks its own dialect. Hence, we're well-advised to consider Bacon's parable. We still need a lot of 'ant work' to be done e.g. statisticians to crunch through mountains of data and biochemists to run millions of tests. Ant colonies, however, thrive without a central command-and-control function. The question is - have we increased ant workloads yet atomised these diligent workers so they cannot see the overall purpose of their work? Equally, a pressure to 'publish or perish' now encourages our 'spiders' to spin finer and finer webs but this makes it harder to relate even to each the other. 'Bee's' too may struggle to cope with teh fast pace of , change and the quality of 'honey' suffer from homegenous sources of information yet less thinking diversity.

'New' but somewhat familiar landscapes

Today Bacon might find comfort in some of our modern applications of ant-work e,g. in the form of machine learning and protein-folding. The ants' "explore-exploit" heuristic is even replicated by robots within the building sector to maximise efficiency. Pirolli and Card resurrected the term ‘information foraging’ in the early 1990’s, noting similarities between animal behaviour and how we search on-line. Yet algorithms may also hinder both 'spider' and 'bee' scientists alike from making insights. They reduce the random array and, hence, representativeness of source material. It is certainly the case that there is much to digest fior us all as work becomes more abstract, complex and interpretive. In fact, it is easier than ever to lose our way and come adrift from a collective purpose.

Our future can be gold

Hopefully, like ecologically-sound insects, we can transform vast supplies of data to deliver the greatest good to the greates numbers. Today, it is the 'ant'-work that reveals to us the very causal structures of our own genes so that 'spiders' can manipulate and improve them. The challenge we face is how to avoid building towers of data for their own sake or sticky spiderwebs that only misinform and entrap us. We will, it seems, still depend on 'bee' scientists as much as ever. Their challenge is to navigate a fast-changing topography and produce a many-model approach to help understand and traverse them.

Unlike 'Artificial Intelligence', however, there is scant research and time dedicated to how our own 'hive intelligence' can be supported best. Nevertheless, Bacon guides us in his observation that - “the bee takes the middle ground” . Greater tolerance and professional cross-pollination will help immensely to realise his dream of scientific 'honey' - not a golden store but more an emergent, repitive and continuous process.

Fiona Fennell is an Organisational Behaviourist and the Founder of Think4Purpose who deliver coaching and workshops to STEM professionals on how to think better together for Workplace 4.0 .


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