Could the biggest problem facing modern brands be solved by the humble wasp?

According to Prof Sean O’Donnell of Drexel University in Philadelphia, wasps have it sussed. O’Donnell and his team has conducted recent research showing that wasps live in large, social colonies, and can “share” brainpower between themselves.

“By communicating and responding to colony mates, a social insect is under less pressure to assess and respond to its environment on its own. Group members can share information and help each other solve problems.”

The “distributed cognition hypothesis,” assumes that was group members can rely on social communication. Instead of individual cognition, they share the cognitive load.

That’s the ‘hive mind’ at work.

Some of the biggest companies in the world could learn from the humble insect.

Flow

Big brands are facing a big problem.

The way we’ve always organised big teams has been through a ‘one to many’ style and this has never adapted to reflect the new digital reality. The thing that greases the wheels of any modern organisation is speed of information flow, and so many are getting it wrong.

Everyone has worked in companies where bureaucracy, silos, office politicking and Chinese whispers impact on company culture, prohibit inter team communication and thus overall performance.

In the personal online world, given the sheer unrelenting pace of digital culture information like video clips and viral photos travel at the speed of light.

Yet in business, the contrast couldn’t be sharper. 

Despite existing in a volatile, constantly shifting environment, in most big companies, great ideas get stuck in a never ending pipeline. Information that needs to be shared from team to team never gets verbalised and people leave meetings confused, without any recourse for clarity because they feel stuck in their own bubble.

On the face of it, companies can’t afford to ignore this, and yet they are.

Like banks relying on outdated software to serve their customers and eventually landing themselves in monetary crisis, most companies don’t think about the way information gets shared inside their company. They don’t realise the problem until it’s too late and they’re lagging behind a more nimble competitor.

At the most basic level, you can’t expect to be successful if you’re operating statically in a dynamic world. This problem is another manifestation of the ‘disruption’ we’re seeing across virtually every sector of business. 

On the flipside, startups like Uber, AirBnB and Spotify, versed in the school of ‘lean’ experimentation, understand the need to communicate frequently. That’s why they’re each eating the lunch of bigger, more traditional companies in their sector.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 14.13.12
Spotify’s approach to new product development and iteration. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1018963/Articles/HowSpotifyBuildsProducts.pdf

So how can companies alter this old school bias to sharing information and leadership?

Autonomous

The business world has become more and more decentralised, meaning those employees at the margins of companies need to make important, autonomous, independent decisions. Thus, the need for a kinetic company that distributes info quickly.

One of the most interesting speakers on the topic is retired US Army general Stanley McChrystal. In a new book ‘Team of Teams’, McChrystal uses learnings from his time in the army and its battles with speedy, on the ground enemies like ISIS as a metaphor for what many big businesses are experiencing. According to him, “the information-up, decision-down cycle of a traditional bureaucracy cannot compete with the speed and interconnectedness of the modern environment”. It’s a compelling argument and the book is a worthy read.

New internal messaging services and project management software are emerging to solve this problem. Slack, a team collaboration tool has been one of the startup success stories of 2015, mainly because the founders saw the need for a platform offering open, indexed and speedy internal communication between teams.

But the main issue lies at the senior management level. The sooner big, bloated organisations wake up and take some lessons from the wasp, the more likely it is they can defend market share from disruptive upstarts.

It seems a simple choice, but big brands need to wake up and smell the pollen.