Tuesday 12 January 2010

Consider the Ant

massive ant trail
Originally uploaded by

Consider the ant, thou KM-er. Consider her ways and be wise (proverbs 6.6)

In fact, consider her walkways. Consider how relatively straight and direct they are. Any particular ant track is pretty much the best way to get to A to B (usually from food to nest). So how do ants collaborate to build the best approach? DO they design it, or do they evolve it through continuous improvement? And if the latter, exactly how are these continuous improvements made? How do ants LEARN to make a straight path

When ants move, they leave a scent trail behind. It's a fading trail - immediately after depositing, it starts to fade. Initially their trail is pretty random, and may zigzag all over the place. Other ants follow the trail, following the strongest scent, but not 100% faithfully. There's a little bit of variation built in.

Because of that variation, ants will sometimes find a shortcut, and cut out one of the zigzags. Becuase they cut the corner and get there faster, their scent is stronger, and becomes the dominant trail. Other ants follow them. If their new way is longer (a longcut), their scent has faded, and others don't follow. So the improvements in the trail are reinforced, and the trail gets progressively better and straighter. Over time, the trail becomes straight.

We can learn from this. For ants, the organisational memory lies in the trail itself, embedded in the scent. For organisations, the organisational memory lies in the processes. Our processes can get better and better if, like the ant

  • Our process improvements are recorded (like the new scent trail along the shortcut), and

  • Other preferentially follow the new better process (like the ants following the stronger scent) so that these become the dominant process, plus

  • We build in the possibility of (limited) experimentation, so shortcuts can be found

An example? The drilling crews in the oil sector. They plan each drilling campaigns carefully, with target times and processes for each step. Then at the end of the well, they review progress. Did they try something new, and beat the target? Did they find a shortcut? Then they update the process. Did they try something new, and fail to beat the target? The old process still stands. The process is their "ant trail" - not to be followed slavishly, but representing the "current best" - to be continually improved, but at any one time representing the straightest known path to the goal.

Consider the ant. Knowledge Management can learn a lot from the way they perfect their trails.

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