To bee or not to bee

May 8, 2006

Scientists at Cornell University in New York have come across a management strategy for group decision-making that is sure to set the business world buzzing.

When 10,000 honeybees hunt for a new home, usually a tree cavity, they have a unique method of deciding which site is right. Scientists have long known that the advance scouts for honeybees “waggle dance” to report on food. However, now researchers have confirmed that these honeybees dance to report on real estate, too, as part of their group decision-making process.

Their technique includes coalition building until a quorum develops, says Cornell neurobiologist Thomas Seeley. It’s an efficient way to narrow down the options and minimize bad decisions.

The better the housing site, the stronger the scouts waggle dance, the researchers found. That prompts other scouts to check out the recommended site. If they agree it’s a good choice, they dance to advertise the site and revisit it frequently. Scouts who like different sites compete to attract uncommitted scouts to their favorites. Eventually, the scouts build up most rapidly at the best site. As soon as 15 or more bees are at any one site, the scouts signal to the waiting bees in the swarm that it’s time to prepare for takeoff toward the new home.

Do honeybees always choose the best site? The researchers found that although the superior site was never the first one found, it was almost always chosen.

“This is a striking example of decision making by an animal group that is complicated enough to rival the dealings of any department committee,” says Seeley, who along with University of California-Riverside entomologist Kirk Visscher and Ohio State University engineer Kevin Passino, has been studying honeybee swarms for more than 10 years.

Seeley thinks that his group’s study, published in the May-June issue of American Scientist, might be used to improve human group decision-making. “The bees’ method, which is a product of disagreement and contest rather than consensus or compromise, consistently yields excellent collective decisions,” he maintains.

The honeybees’ methods, which include an open forum of ideas, frank “discussions” and friendly competition, just might help human committees “achieve collective intelligence and thus avoid collective folly,” conclude the researchers. If humans employed the technique of aggregating independent opinions to achieve a quorum, maybe they too would arrive more swiftly at smart decisions.

Now picture this honey of an idea — achieving collective intelligence and thus avoiding collective folly — as it translates to the insurance industry. Too much collective intelligence in insurance almost assures collective folly, including extreme underwriting cycles and antitrust problems. But on a more intimate scale, independent agents, risk managers and underwriters effectively waggle dance over the price and terms every day. Program managers and underwriters do the same to identify their next target market. Also, human resource professionals waggle dance to narrow the search for the new vice president of claims who, in turn, waggle dances with adjusters and policyholders to achieve acceptable settlements.

Yet in the larger realm, waggle dancing is less successful. Fifty state regulators have trouble dancing to the tune of the same model regulation. The swarms of industry lobbyists and politicians appear busy as — well, you know what — trying to waggle their way to acceptable legislation but they get stuck more often than not. Then there are trial lawyers and reinsurers — do they dance with anyone? These players appear to base decisions less on aggregating opinions and more on one party’s willingness to sweeten the pot.

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