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

Updated: Nov 19

Ants, Spiders and Bees are all wondrous creatures & each 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 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 working world of scientists 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, our first philosopher of modern science. 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 ‘reasoners’ i.e. scientists who “make cobwebs of their own substance” producing insights via careful deliberation. However, he reserved his greatest praise for ‘bee'-type scientists who combined the empiricism (of ants) with the rationalism (of spiders) to transform concepts into ‘value-add’ for humanity.

A prophetic warning

As the S.T.E.M. disciplines inevitably specialise, each looks at the world through a narrower frame and speaks its own dialect. Hence, we're well-advised to consider Bacon's lesson carefully as much now as then. We still need a lot of 'ant work' to be carried out e.g. data scientists to crunch through mountains of code 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? Equally, a pressure to 'publish or perish' encourages our 'spiders' to spin finer and finer webs, making it harder to relate each to the other or prioritise them within a larger eco-system. 'Bee's' too may struggle to cope with pervasive, environmental change and the quality of honey suffer from mono-crops (homegenity as opposed to homogenisation).

'New' but somewhat familiar landscapes

Today Bacon might find surprising some of our modern applications of ant-work e,g. in machine learning. Their "explore-exploit" heuristic is now reeplicated by robots within the buiding sector who scurry yet selecting each brick selectively and efficiently. So too did Pirolli and Card who 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 in reducing the array (and hence representativeness) of source material. It is certainly the case that there is much to digest as work becomes more abstract, complex and interpretive. In fact, it is easier than ever to lose our way and come adrift from 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 most. Perhaps we need ants, spiders and bees all equally in our current knowledge biosphere. 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 to 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 integate the multitudes that together sustain learning and life. ‘Rugged landscapes’ will require a many-model approach both to 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 still 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 process of 'reponsbile knowing'.

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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