Saul Kaplan: Innovation Lessons From Bees

We can learn a lot about innovation by observing the social behavior of honeybees.  Who hasn’t been riveted by devastating stories of colony collapse?  This is serious stuff.  From a honeybee’s perspective watching 35% of your fellow Apis mellifera get wiped out is no joke. From a human perspective, think of it this way, one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat is dependent on honeybee pollination. Bees are responsible for about $15 billion in U.S. agricultural crop value.  Colony collapse really matters. It’s worth paying attention to bees.

The term colony collapse disorder was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of honeybee disappearances in 2006.  It’s an eerie phenomenon where one day worker bees swarm together in great numbers and the next they are gone, poof they just disappear, leaving behind an empty hive.  It’s not as if they leave to join another colony. They leave to die alone and dispersed which is strange given the social nature of honeybees.  Scientists have been working feverishly to determine the etiology of colony collapse disorder.

Saul KaplanI read with great interest the recent announcement that researchers collaborating from academia and the military had found the answer.  I am a sucker for a good collaborative innovation story where unusual suspects tag team across silos to solve a problem that neither of them could solve on their own. This one is a classic.  Army scientists in Maryland working with academic entomologists in Montana solved the mystery. They applied proteomics-based pathogen screening tools to identify a co-infection comprised of both a virus and a fungus.  They found the combination of pathogens in all of the collapsed colonies they tested.  Hopefully their findings will quickly lead to pathogen mitigation strategies dramatically reducing the incidence of colony collapse disorder.

While I am glad the mystery is solved I can’t help asking, what is it about organizing in colonies that prevents bees from innovating themselves.  And closer to home, aren’t bee colonies like hierarchical corporate structures?  Maybe understanding the social behavior of bees in their colonies will help us understand why corporate structures are also vulnerable to colony collapse.

Honeybees are social insects. A honeybee colony is comprised of thousands of bees that cooperate in regimented ways on the day-to-day tasks of nest building, food collection, and brood rearing (substitute your organization’s core processes).  Each member of the colony has a very specific task to perform (job descriptions).  There is typically one queen bee (CEO), several hundred sycophantic drones (management), and thousands of worker bees (AKA worker bees).  Social organizations within a bee colony closely resemble those of a corporation.  Each bee has a rigidly specific function.  Communication systems are elaborate.  I particularly like the “waggle dance” (staff meetings) bees use to communicate assignments and division of labor.  Bees are big into seniority, assigning specific tasks based on age not performance.  Scale is everything, with efficiency increasing in direct proportion to colony size.  Sound familiar?

It’s no wonder bee colonies are unable to adapt and innovate when faced with a threat like colony collapse.  They are hierarchical execution machines just like corporations.  Flexibility, experimentation, and resiliency don’t come to mind.  It’s not as if bee colonies haven’t built up elaborate defense mechanisms to protect against outside threats.  There are stingers, elegant hives including walls varnished with herbicides, and posted guards complete with alarm pheromones.  The colony’s defenses work fine until an unexpected disruption like the double whammy of a combined virus and fungus brings on colony collapse disorder.  The colony is helpless and is quickly destroyed.  Sound analogous to the Pony Express disrupted by the invention of the telegraph, RCA blindsided by the integrated circuit, and Blockbusters brought to its knees by Netflix?

Hierarchical colonies (organizations) are not designed for innovation, flexibility, or resiliency.  Perhaps avoiding colony collapse requires a hybrid organization structure, part colony and part network. A hierarchical core designed for operating efficiency and scale connected to a network structure designed for adaptation, experimentation and innovation.  They’re not mutually exclusive structures.  With the half-life of business models declining R&D for new business models is imperative. The 21st century requires hybrid structures, one to pedal the bicycle of today’s business model and another one to design, prototype, and experiment with new models, especially those with the potential to disrupt current models.

If our current organizations are to avoid colony collapse syndrome it’s worth paying attention to bees.


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