What do ants and bees have to do with business? A great deal, it turns out. Individually, social insects are only minimally intelligent, and their work together is largely self-organized and unsupervised. Yet collectively they're capable of finding highly efficient solutions to difficult problems and can adapt automatically to changing environments. Over the past 20 years, the authors and other researchers have developed rigorous mathematical models to describe this phenomenon, which has been dubbed "swarm intelligence," and they are now applying them to business. Their research has already helped several companies develop more efficient ways to schedule factory equipment, divide tasks among workers, organize people, and even plot strategy. Emulating the way ants find the shortest path to a new food supply, for example, has led researchers at Hewlett-Packard to develop software programs that can find the most efficient way to route phone traffic over a telecommunications network. Southwest Airlines has used a similar model to efficiently route cargo. To allocate labor, honeybees appear to follow one simple but powerful rule--they seem to specialize in a particular activity unless they perceive an important need to perform another function. Using that model, researchers at Northwestern University have devised a system for painting trucks that can automatically adapt to changing conditions. In the future, the authors speculate, a company might structure its entire business using the principles of swarm intelligence. The result, they believe, would be the ultimate self-organizing enterprise--one that could adapt quickly and instinctively to fast-changing markets.
Link to the paper