Decision Support

We humans can learn a lot from other social networking animals like bees and ants. An article from The Economist issue from Feb. 14, 2009 discusses a study in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by Dr. List talking about how honeybees decide on new nest sites. The article describes how groups make choices by consensus.

Queen Bee

Queen Bee

When a bee hive splits the old queen leaves with 2/3rds of the workers, leaving her daughter at the old nest with 1/3 of the workers. Scouts are sent out to pick nest sites. Each scout returns and reports their findings. Then after new scouts review the best sites and report their findings a consensus is reached. This is not just about majority voters; consensus is reach on merits of the sites as reported and the validation of these observations by others. There is agreement reached between multiple scouts. If two scouts return with similar sites then additional scouts are dispatched to gather more details. Having different views with new observations gives the hive greater information upon which to base their decision.

In related research a look at how bad decisions are made shows that withholding information and sources with malevolent intent can create negative results. When the descison makers are isolated from information or are dominated by a another group the results can be devastating. The interdependence of communication is critical to decision making.

The concept that a group of individuals working collaboratively can arrive at a better decision than just one individual is central to our democracy. It’s why we don’t have dictators and why even our royalty is more ceremonial than functional. Our criminal system is based on group consensus when juries are established. More people mean more points of view and hopefully better information exchange to arrive at better decisions.

Yet, we humans also have our own faults; this is related to “groupthink“. Too often groups of followers get behind a dynamic or powerful leader and lose their way. Usually this leader is someone with a huge ego that doesn’t tolerate disagreement or criticism. What happens then is “blind following”, toeing the party line. There is a danger to this form of collaboration. Rather then a consensus this is at best an oligarchy and at worst a masked dictatorship.

A leader with minions is a weak leader. Without the challenging by equals and the review of options the end result doesn’t benefit from the social network strengths of our human race.

Back to bees and ants. When quick decisions are needed due to survival, the scouts sent out to find a new nest use fewer resources.

Worker Bee

Worker Bee

The need to gather data quickly and train new scouts to identify and learn the route to the new nest becomes a critical function. If under threat, even the inexperienced became leaders. Of course this can not happen if all the followers are minions and none of the weak followers have been allowed to develop.

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