Ant colonies: building complex organizations with minuscule brains and no leaders

Abstract

Thus far the articles in the series JOD calls the “Organization Zoo” have employed the notion of a “zoo” metaphorically to describe an array of human institutions. Here we take the term literally to consider the design of the most complex organizations in the living world beside those of humans, a favorite of insect zoos around the world: ant colonies. We consider individuality and group identity in the functioning of ant organizations; advantages of a flat organization without hierarchies or leaders; self-organization; direct and indirect communication; job specialization; labor coordination; and the role of errors in innovation. The likely value and limitations of comparing ant and human organizations are briefly examined.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.

References

  1. Altman EJ, Nagle F, Tushman ML (2015) Innovating without information constraints: Organizations, communities, and innovation when information costs approach zero. The Oxford handbook of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 353–379

    Google Scholar 

  2. Anderson C, Franks NR (2001) Teams in animal societies. Behav Ecol 12(5):534–540

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Arazy O, Ortega F, Nov O, Yeo L, Balila A (2015) Functional roles and career paths in Wikipedia. In: Proceedings of the 18th ACM conference on computer supported cooperative work and social computing. pp 1092–1105

  4. Atran S, Medin DL (2008) The native mind and the cultural construction of nature. Life and mind. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  5. Baldwin C, von Hippel E (2011) Modeling a paradigm shift: from producer innovation to user and open collaborative innovation. Organ Sci 22(6):1399–1417

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Barney J (1986) Strategic factor markets: expectations, luck, and business strategy. Manage Sci 32(10):1231–1241

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Baumann O, Siggelkow N (2013) Dealing with complexity: integrated vs. chunky search processes. Organ Sci 24(1):116–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bennett NC, Faulkes CG (2000) African mole-rats: Ecology and eusociality. Cambridge University Press, UK

    Google Scholar 

  9. Bingham CB, Eisenhardt KM (2011) Rational heuristics: the ‘simple rules’ that strategists learn from process experience. Strateg Manage J 32(13):1437–1464

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bingham CB, Eisenhardt KM, Furr NR (2007) What makes a process a capability? Heuristics, strategy and effective capture of opportunities. Strateg Entrepreneurship J 1(1):27–47

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Blau PM (1968) The Hierarchy of Authority in Organizations. Am J Sociol 73:453–764

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Blüthgen N, Stork NE, Fiedler K (2004) Bottom-up control and co-occurrence in complex communities: honeydew and nectar determine a rainforest ant mosaic. Oikos 106:344–358

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Bonabeau E, Theraulaz G, Deneubourg J-L (1996) Mathematical model of self-organizing hierarchies in animal societies. Bull Math Biol 58:661–717

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bremner RP, Eisenhardt KM (2020) Organizing form, innovation and performance: Lessons from the nascent civilian drone industry. Stanford University, Under review

    Google Scholar 

  15. Burghardt GM (1997) Amending Tinbergen: A fifth aim for ethology. In: Mitchell RW, Thompson NS, Miles H (eds) Anthropomorphism, anecdotes and animals. State University of New York Press, Albany, pp 254–276

    Google Scholar 

  16. Burton RM, Håkonsson DD, Nickerson J, Puranam P, Workiewicz M, Zenger T (2017) GitHub: exploring the space between boss-less and hierarchical forms of organizing. J Organ Des 6(1):1–19

    Google Scholar 

  17. Calabi P, Traniello JFA (1989) Behavioral flexibility in age castes of the ant Pheidole dentata. Insect Behav 2(5):663–677

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Camazine S, Deneubourg J-L, Franks NR, Sneyd J, Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E (2001) Self-organization in biological systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  19. Cassill D (2003) Rules of supply and demand regulate recruitment to food in an ant society. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 54(5):441–450

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Chandler A (1977) The visible hand: the managerial revolution in american business. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  21. Charbonneau D, Sasaki T, Dornhaus A (2017) Who needs lazy workers: Inactive workers act as a ‘reserve’ labor force replacing active workers, but inactive workers aren’t replaced when they are removed. PloS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184074

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Coase R (1937) The nature of the firm. Economica 4:386–405

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Couzin ID (2009) Collective cognition in animal groups. Trends Cogn Sci 13(1):36–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Cronin AL (2015) Individual and group personalities characterize consensus decision-making in an ant. Ethology 121(7):1–11

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Daniels BC, Ellison CJ, Krakauer DC, Flack JC (2016) Quantifying collectivity. Curr Opin Neurobiol 37:106–113

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Davidow WH, Malone MS (1992) The virtual corporation: structuring and revitalizing the corporation for the 21st century. Harper Collins, New York

    Google Scholar 

  27. Davis JP, Eisenhardt KM, Bingham CB (2009) Optimal structure, market dynamism, and the strategy of simple rules. Adm Sci Q 54(3):413–452

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Demaitre E (2019) Attabotics brings vision of ant-like efficiency to supply chains. The Robot Report, 16 August. https://www.therobotreport.com/attabotics-brings-vision-ant-efficiency-supply-chains/

  29. Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM, Verhaeghe JC (1983) Probabilistic behaviour in ants: a strategy of errors? J Theor Biol 105(2):259–271

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L (2008) Collective decision-making and foraging patterns in ants and honeybees. Adv Insect Physiol 35:123–173

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Dornhaus A, Franks NR (2008) Individual and collective cognition in ants and other insects. Myrmecol News 11:215–226

    Google Scholar 

  32. Dunbar RIM (2010) How many friends does one person need? Dunbar’s number and other evolutionary quirks. Faber and Faber, London

    Google Scholar 

  33. Dussutour A, Simpson SJ (2009) Communal nutrition in ants. Curr Biol 19(9):740–744

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Dussutour A, Fourcassié V, Helbing D, Deneubourg JL (2004) Optimal traffic organization in ants under crowded conditions. Nature 428(6978):70–73

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Ellemers N (2012) The group self. Science 336:848–852

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Elliott M (2006) Stigmergic collaboration: The evolution of group work. J Media Cult 9(2) https://www.journal.media-culture.org.au/0605/03-elliott.php

  37. Faraj S, Bijan A (2012) The materiality of technology: an affordance perspective. In: Leonardi PM, Nardi BA, Kallinikos J (eds) Materiality and organizing: social interaction in a technological world. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  38. Farine DR, Whitehead H (2015) Constructing, conducting and interpreting animal social network analysis. J Anim Ecol 84:1144–1163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Feinerman O, Traniello JF (2016) Social complexity, diet, and brain evolution: modeling the effects of colony size, worker size, brain size, and foraging behavior on colony fitness in ants. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70(7):1063–1074

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Fewell JH (2003) Social insect networks. Science 301(5641):1867–1870

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Firestein S (2016) Failure: why science is so successful. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  42. Foster KR, Ratnieks FLW (2005) A new eusocial vertebrate? Trends Ecol Evol 20(7):363–364

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Franks NR, Dechaume-Moncharmont F-X, Hanmore E, Reynolds JK (2009) Speed versus accuracy in decision-making ants: expediting politics and policy implementation. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364:845–852

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Furr N, Dyer J (2014) The innovator’s method. Harvard Business Review Press, Watertown, MA

    Google Scholar 

  45. Galbraith JR (1973) Designing complex organizations. Addison-Wesley, Reading

    Google Scholar 

  46. Garnier S, Gautrais J, Theraulaz G (2007) The biological principles of swarm intelligence. Swarm Intell 1(1):3–31

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Godfrey RK, Gronenberg W (2019) Brain evolution in social insects: advocating for the comparative approach. J Comp Physiol A 205(1):13–32

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Gordon DM (2010) Ant encounters: interaction networks and colony behavior. Princeton University Press , Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  49. Grassé P-P (1959) La reconstruction du nid et les coordinations interindividuelles chez Bellicositermes natalensis et Cubitermes sp. La théorie de la stigmergie: essai d’interprétation du comportement des termites constructeurs. Insectes Soc 6(1):41–80

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Halfaker A, Geiger RS, Morgan JT, Reidl J (2013) The rise and decline of an open collaboration system: how Wikipedia’s reaction to popularity is causing its decline. Am Behav Sci 57(5):664–688

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Heylighen F (2007) Why is open access development so successful? Stigmergic organization and the economics of information. In: Lutterbeck B, Bärwolff M, Gehring RA (eds) Open Source Jahrbuch. Lehmanns Media, Berlin

    Google Scholar 

  52. Hölldobler B (1999) Multimodal signals in ant communication. J Com Physiol A 184(2):129–141

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Hölldobler B, Wilson EO (2008) The superorganism: The beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies. WW Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  54. Hölldobler B, Wilson EO (2011) The leafcutter ants: civilization by instinct. WW Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  55. Holmes NA, Innocent TM, Heine D, Bassam MA, Worsley SF, Trottmann F, Patrick EH, Yu DW, Murrell JC, Schiøtt M, Wilkinson B (2016) Genome analysis of two Pseudonocardia phylotypes associated with Acromyrmex leafcutter ants reveals their biosynthetic potential. Front Microbiol 7:2073–2089

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Jung J, Concannon C, Shroff R, Goel S, Goldstein DG (2017) Simple rules for complex decisions. SSRN 2919024

  57. Kaltenpoth M (2009) Actinobacteria as mutualists: general healthcare for insects? Trends Microbiol 17:529–535

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Lakhani KR, Lifshitz-Assaf H, Tushman ML (2013) Open innovation and organizational boundaries: Task decomposition, knowledge distribution and the locus of innovation. Handbook of economic organization: Integrating economic and organizational theory. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, pp 355–382

    Google Scholar 

  59. Langridge EA, Franks NR, Sendova-Franks AB (2004) Improvement in collective performance with experience in ants. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 56(6):523–529

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Latour B, Woolgar S (1979) Laboratory life. The construction of scientific facts. Princeton University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  61. Liebenberg L (2012) The art of tracking: the origin of science. New Africa Books, Cape Town

    Google Scholar 

  62. Marsden J (2015) Developing a Framework for Stigmergic Human Collaboration with Technology Tools: Cases in Emergency Response. Syracuse Univ., Ph.D. dissertation

  63. McDonald RM, Eisenhardt KM. (2020) Parallel play: Startups, nascent markets, and effective business-model design. Admin Sci Q Forthcoming

  64. McGlynn TP, Owen JP (2002) Food supplementation alters caste allocation in a natural population of Pheidole flavens, a dimorphic leaf-litter dwelling ant. Insectes Soc 49(1):8–14

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Moffett MW (1988) Foraging dynamics in the group-hunting ant, Pheidologeton diversus. J Insect Behav 1(3):309–331

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Moffett MW (2010) Adventures among ants: a global safari with a cast of trillions. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  67. Moffett MW (2011) Ants and the art of war. Sci Am 305(12):84–89

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Moffett MW (2012) Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society? Behav Ecol 23(5):925–933

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Moffett MW (2019) The human swarm: how our societies arise, thrive, and fall. Basic Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  70. Moffett MW (2020) Apples and oranges, ants and humans: The misunderstood art of making comparisons. Skeptics 25(1):8–9

    Google Scholar 

  71. Morgan J (2014) The future of work. Wiley, Hoboken

    Google Scholar 

  72. Moussaid M, Garnier S, Theraulaz G, Helbing D (2009) Collective information processing and pattern formation in swarms, flocks, and crowds. Top Cogn Sci 1(3):469–497

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Mueller UG, Gerardo NM, Aanen DK, Six DL, Schultz T (2005) The evolution of agriculture in insects. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 36:563–595

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Offenberg J (2001) Balancing between mutualism and exploitation: the symbiotic interaction between Lasius ants and aphids. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 49:304–310

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. O’Mahony S, Ferraro F (2007) The emergence of governance in an open source community. Acad Manag J 50(5):1079–1106

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Oster GF, Wilson EO (1978) Caste and ecology in the social insects. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  77. Ott TE, Eisenhardt KM (2020) Decision weaving: Forming novel, complex strategy in entrepreneurial settings. Strateg Manage J forthcoming

  78. Passera L, Roncin E, Kaufmann B, Keller L (1996) Increased soldier production in ant colonies exposed to intraspecific competition. Nature 379(6566):630–631

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Penrose E (1959) The theory of the growth of the firm (3rd 1995), 3rd edn. Oxford, Basil Blackwell

    Google Scholar 

  80. Pilkiewicz KR, Lemasson BH, Rowland MA, Hein A, Sun J, Berdahl A et al (2020) Decoding collective communications using information theory tools. J R Soc Interface 17:20190563. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2019.0563

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Polilov AA, Makarova AA, Kolesnikova UK (2019) Cognitive abilities with a tiny brain: neuronal structures and associative learning in the minute Nephanes titan. Arthropod Struct Dev 48:98–102

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Puranam P (2018) The microstructure of organizations. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  83. Puranam P, Håkonsson DD (2015) Valve’s way J Organ Des 4(2):2–4

    Google Scholar 

  84. Puranam P, Alexy O, Reitzig M (2014) What’s “New” About New Forms of Organizing? Acad Manage Rev 39:162–180

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Putnam LL, Nicotera AM (2009) Building Theories of organization: the constitutive role of communication. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  86. Ratnieks FLW, Foster KR, Wenseleers T (2006) Conflict resolution in insect societies. Annu Rev Entomol 51:581–608

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Rezgui A, Crowston K (2018) Stigmergic Coordination in Wikipedia. In: Proceedings of the 14th international symposium on open collaboration (OpenSym 2018). association for computing machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 19:1–12 https://doi.org/10.1145/3233391.3233543

  88. Robertson BJ (2007) Organization at the leading edge: Introducing HolacracyTM. Integral Leadership Rev 7(3):1–13

    Google Scholar 

  89. Robson SK, Traniello JFA (1999) Key individuals and the organization of labor in ants. In: Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (eds) Information processing in social insects. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, pp 239–259

    Google Scholar 

  90. Sakata H (1994) How an ant decides to prey on or to attend aphids. Res Popul Ecol 36:45–51

    Article  Google Scholar 

  91. Seeley TD (2002) When is self-organization used in biological systems? Biol Bull 202(3):314–318

    Article  Google Scholar 

  92. Seeley TD (2010) Honey bee democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ

    Google Scholar 

  93. Smith VL (1998) The two faces of Adam Smith. South Econ J 65(1):1–19

    Article  Google Scholar 

  94. Sorensen AA, Busch TM, Vinson SB (1985) Control of food influx by temporal subcastes in the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 17(3):191–198

    Article  Google Scholar 

  95. Stadler B, Dixon AFG (2005) Ecology and evolution of aphid–ant interactions. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 36:345–372

    Article  Google Scholar 

  96. Sull DN, Eisenhardt KM (2015) Simple rules: How to thrive in a complex world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

    Google Scholar 

  97. Tena A, Hoddle CD, Hoddle MS (2013) Competition between honeydew producers in an ant-hemipteran interaction may enhance biological control of an invasive pest. Bull Entomol Res 103:714–723

    Article  Google Scholar 

  98. Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E (1999) A brief history of stigmergy. Artif Life 5(2):97–116

    Article  Google Scholar 

  99. Tomasello M (2010) Origins of human communication. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  100. Topoff H (1990) Slave-making ants. Am Sci 78(6):520–528

    Google Scholar 

  101. Tushman MA, Nadler DA (1978) Information processing as an integrating concept in organizational design. Acad Manage Rev 3:613–624

    Google Scholar 

  102. Visscher PK (2007) Group decision making in nest-site selection among social insects. Annu Rev Entomol 52:255–275

    Article  Google Scholar 

  103. Wenzel JW, Pickering J (1991) Cooperative foraging, productivity, and the central limit theorem. Proc Natl Acad Sci 88(1):36–38

    Article  Google Scholar 

  104. Williamson O (1981) The economics of organization: the transaction cost approach. Amer J Sociol 87(3):548–577

    Article  Google Scholar 

  105. Woolley AW, Chabris CF, Pentland A, Hashmi N, Malone TW (2010) Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330(6004):686–688

    Article  Google Scholar 

  106. Wystrach A, Beugnon G (2009) Ants learn geometry and features. Curr Biol 19(1):61–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  107. Yu B, Yang ZZ, Yao B (2009) An improved ant colony optimization for vehicle routing problem. Eur J Oper Res 196(1):171–176

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The description of the market strategy of the fire ant was adapted by MWM from Moffett (2010) with the permission of the University of California Press.

Funding

SG supported by the DARPA Young Faculty Award under Grant D19AP00046.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

MWM was responsible for the conception, drafting, and revising of the manuscript. SG contributed to several sections and to editing and revising the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark W. Moffett.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

None.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Moffett, M.W., Garnier, S., Eisenhardt, K.M. et al. Ant colonies: building complex organizations with minuscule brains and no leaders. J Org Design (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41469-021-00093-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Ants
  • Colonies
  • Individuality
  • Group identity
  • Self-organization
  • Hierarchies
  • Leaders
  • Division of labor
  • Coordination
  • Stigmergy