How to learn like an ant
Social and organisational learning is so easy that even ants can do it, and we can learn from the principles they apply.
If you look at an ant trail from the nest to a source of food, it is pretty direct. The food may have been found by a random foraging ant, but pretty soon the whole colony has been alerted to the food, and developed a path that approximates to the quickest route between the food and the nest.
So how do ants collaborate to build the “best route”? 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. Wherever 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 takes longer (a longcut), their scent has faded, and others don’t follow. For the ants – faster is better as it is more efficient.
- So the improvements in the trail are reinforced, and the trail gets progressively better and straighter. Over time, the trail becomes straight.
For ants, the organisational memory lies in the trail itself, embedded in the scent. For organisations, the organisational memory lies in the processes. We can follow the principles of Ant-learning, if we replace the scent-trail with the operational procedures.
- We record our knowledge in operational procedures, which represent our current best approach to doing a particular task. Initially the procedures may not be particularly effective, and people are allowed to vary from the procedures if they find a better way.
- The variations are recorded as process improvements or lessons learned and embedded in improved procedures, like the new scent trail along the shortcut. There needs to be some way to know whether the new variations are better. Perhaps they improve efficiency, or quality, or cost, or customer satisfaction. You need to be able to tell what “better” looks like.
- Other teams follow the new better procedures (like the ants following the stronger scent) so that these become the dominant procedures – until the next improved variation is found. Over time the procedure becomes optimal.
You can see this learning process at work in any continuous improvement process, whether it is a drilling crew improving their rig procedures, a lean manufacturing team improving their manufacturing procedures, or an Army improving their doctrine. They all learn like an ant – recording and embedding the improvements until the trail is straight.