The Wisdom of Bee's for Workplace 4.0

Updated: Feb 1

Ants, spiders and bees are all wondrous creatures, each in their own right. Ants build massive homes, lift 50 times their body weight and support huge colonies. Spiders create a substance of themselves with the tensile strength comparable to steel. Bee’s gift the entire ecosystem and create a delicious food with antiseptic properties. Each creature gives us a valuable insight into how STEM professionals can approach working together.

We are foragers too

Animal metaphors borrowed from the Greek classics, like ‘the fox and hedgehog’, have been re-popularised in recent years by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jim Collins. A reference to the ‘ants, spiders and bee’s’ dates back to Francis Bacon, the first philosopher of modern science. He compared scientists to ants as “men of experiment who collect and use (information)’. Bacon saw no dichotomy between science and philosophy and praised ‘reasoners’ as like spiders who “make cobwebs of their own substance” (e.g. knowledge structures). However, he reserved the greatest praise for ‘bee’s’ combining empirical evidence (generated by ants) with critical thinking frameworks (of spiders) to transform concepts into the ultimate ‘value-add’ i.e. wisdom.

As the STEM disciplines become increasingly specialised, each with distinct languages, we do well to consider Bacon’s observation. Ants are best-suited to low-variation but heavy workloads working well as teams within hierarchical systems. They follow pre-laid down paths and apply tried-and-tested methods. We need them badly - particularly to ensure (e.g. test) reliability and replicability. Spiders allow us to build on the empirical information from the ant to create useful categories, structures and domains. For example, the internet was affectionately known as the ‘World Wide Web’ at one point. Hence, not surprisingly, Pirolli and Card resurrected the ‘information foraging’ metaphor in the early 1990’s noticing similarities between animals foraging and how we search for information on-line.

We are now facing new landscapes

Identifying valid, unbiased information becomes trickier the further we forage. The Internet is wonderful at distributing information widely but it has also treated us to “a tsunami of garbage” (Annie Proux). Like bee’s, we need to take care to gather our material from the widest array of flowers (e.g. media) possible. When digesting information, we must pay attention and transform it, as Bacon suggests the bee does, “by a power of its own”. In other words, we need to interpret and evaluate information in a way that is most contextually relevant.

Hopefully, we are not destined to be atomised and disconnected from one another, simply aggregating information without discrimination (like ants building towers) but without gaining insights. Neither do we want too many spiders who are narrow ‘subject matter experts’ yet unable to join the dots between them. If we merely accept what gets caught into our own web, we become prey ourselves to ‘confirmation bias’. Instead, like bee’s, we can achieve a ‘multiplier effect’ when we learn from each other across the disciplines. In this way, we create new thinking landscapes and ways of knowing that are purpose-fit for our current eco-system.

OUR future can be bright

These days, work is full of ‘hard’ problems, wherein the solution method & concepts required are unclear at the outset. We face complex risk with multiple conflicting objectives & dynamic variables. Ants will help us crunch through BIG data for insights and spiders will create algorithms and models for ‘rugged landscapes’ (Scott E. Page). However, if we model ourselves on bee’s, we stand the best chance of improving our ‘Collective Intelligence’. Compared to ‘Artificial Intelligence’, there is scant research on this subject. C.I. is simply our ability as a group to solve more problems that the sum of our individual members. This is measurable, stable yet not static i.e. we can grow Collective I.Q. a lot faster than individual I.Q..

To be as agile and adaptive as we will need to be, with the pace of change quickening, it is the wisdom of the bee’s that will matter most and allow us to self-organise for ‘wicked’ learning environment (Hogarth) where patterns of the past do not repeat themselves. As Bacon suggests – “the bee takes the middle ground”. The more tolerant we are of each other, the more hope we have of acting responsibly, avoiding data traps and escaping echo chambers that can upset our natural instinct and ability to work well together.

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 .