What can big business learn from bees?

28 March 2017
6 min read

We are not the first generation to buck against the concept of conformity and collective allegiances. The idea of unanimity has offended the intelligentsia and sparked hearty debate in the political, social and arts arenas of every decade. In Monty Python’s famous 1979 satirical comedy, The Life of Brian, Graham Chapman (cast as Brian) reiterates the point: “You’re all individuals!” he shouts, to which they reply in unison, “Yes, we are all individuals!” “You’re all different!” Their reply: “Yes, we are all different!” The irony is not lost on anyone when a lone voice squeaks from the crowd, “I’m not”, and is quickly hushed.

Monty Python, masters of satire and hyperbole, were not the only people in Hollywood to spotlight the sore points of conformance. Star Trek had a go at it too, presenting the antagonists as a fictional alien race (known as ‘the Borg’) that lives and acts as a single organism under the mind-numbing control of a tyrannical queen.

Less humorously, but no less conspicuously than The Life of Brian, Star Trek seems to punt the same message: break free from the imprisonment of collective compliance, or risk a slow and subtle death. Particularly these days, the notion of individualism rises as the ultimate “-ism” above all other “-isms” to rule and reign over the millennial landscape. Concepts like ‘job loyalty’, ‘anonymity’ and ‘group think’ don’t fare well among a generation who were raised on selfies and arranged their own Uber rides to soccer games. Chapman’s declaration, “You are all different!” sits far more comfortably with the current workforce.

As such a beehive, the epitome of ‘copy, paste workers’, may not be the most popular analogy for how to build successful, resilient organisations. Nothing about the connotations associated with the words, ‘group’, ‘worker bees’ or ‘dominant queen’ appeals to today’s workforce. But in reality, business and leaders of industry can learn profound lessons from the symbiotic dynamics of the hive.

Given the environmental challenges facing a burgeoning population (i.e. us), we can’t afford to think any way other than collectively into the future if we are to ‘cure’ some of our most wicked problems.

It’s all about the buzz

Transformation can only take place when employees buy in at every level, communication is consistent and better people strategies are employed. In the beehive, the queen occupies the C-Suite but, at the same time, she is not the sum total of a healthy hive’s success. It takes every worker bee functioning purposefully and collaboratively to make the multi-dimensional operations of a beehive flow.

The same dynamic is at play within the office. A 2017 McKinsey study on “The people power of transformations shows that transformation can only take place when employees buy in at every level, communication is consistent and better people strategies are employed. The survey concludes that strong CEO leadership is needed, but it’s not everything. True transformation requires an across-the-board sense of ownership and responsibility among all people representing the organisation. The CEO and C-Suite have to pitch a message that is clear and conducive for company buy-in. There must be a why attached to it – a higher purpose for the corporate mission that pulls the organisation out of survivalism and into success.

Managing the ‘mood’ of the hive

In a hive, the role of the queen is indispensable. Although she does not call the shots, she determines the general 'mood' of the hive by emitting a pheromone that affirms all is well. If ever her scent dries up, the colony becomes tense and springs into action to create a new queen.

Good leadership also tends to the ‘scent’ of the workplace. CEOs and C-Suite occupants are responsible for setting the organisation’s culture. They need to ask themselves and their people continually, ‘Are we nurturing a spirit of innovation? Do the systems and relationships we oversee make people want to come to work every day?’

As the culture of an effective corporation strengthens, the executive must move away from punctilious control, more towards mentorship. Strong leaders safeguard vision at the expense of perfection and learn how to wield conductor batons over cracking whips.

Tending to the hive

beehiveAny beekeeper knows that to ensure a happy beehive, you have to keep investing in your bees. Multiple external factors, like temperature, humidity and air quality, can negatively impact on the productivity and resilience of a hive. Beekeepers often install sensors in their hives to track these influences and, through infrared analytics, monitor key elements of bee movement such as swarming and the queen’s performance. As detrimental conditions arise, changes are made immediately.

In the same way, leaders need to serve their human ‘worker bees’ by making changes when necessary to foster healthy workplaces. McKinsey notes that when companies seeking transformation invest in robust ‘people strategies’ that include all levels of organisation, the change effort is 5.8 times more likely to be successful. Employees want to be shown, not told, and to have their voices heard and contributions noted.

Companies that use creative, more digital approaches to engaging employees tend to benefit in the long run, as talents are honed and changes are constantly made to build cultures of inclusion.

Eyes wide open

Like the bee, which is drawn to light and patterns indiscernible to the human eye, great leaders see what others fail to see. A bee’s compound eyes work together to identify resources rich enough to sustain an entire colony. So too: Leaders need to have their eyes everywhere to stay ahead. These days, social media can act as these eyes, scouting the landscape for new places to ‘land’.

Younger CEOs are breaking the norms of social media usage in their ranks by actively pursuing a media agenda. These network services build a buzz and generate brand awareness.

But beyond giving companies a competitive edge, social media effectively provides a platform to pioneer thought leadership and learn from what others in the industry are doing. Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk engage with colleagues, competitors and journalists alike to expand their knowledge and stay on top of what is trending. Leaders who climb down from their towers and stay accessible to the company and customers can sidestep crisis before it even happens, because they know their people and the predominant culture in which they operate.

Don’t get us wrong – when it comes to humanity, anything less than 7 billion extraordinarily unique people is a description that’s fallen gravely short. We are all different, and our future will hang on our diversity. But, if we are to buffer a tumultuous future, we are going to have to harmonise our individuality.

Nature will tell us that we as individuals haven’t worried about the cumulative effect of just throwing away our waste (rather than recycling it). We have created congestion, one car after the other. We have added to climate change one gas guzzler after the next. The efforts of only a few to reuse and recycle, to cycle or walk to work, to install PV cells, etc. will only go so far. The only way to solve the issues that we face is by acting in unison, as a hive or a collective.

Bees seem to have a winning formula for cooperative living – one that continues to thrive. It’s time that we pay some respect, pay attention and learn from what they do. In a time when individuality reigns supreme, maybe minding our own bee’s wax isn’t the best way to go after all.

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Cormac Farrell
Written by
Cormac Farrell

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