Swarm intelligence – What we logisticians can learn from ants – Part II

You may think estimating the weight of an ox, as described in Part 1 of this article, is hardly a complex task. But these mechanisms can be used to solve much more complex logistical problems. These are three categories of problems we typically face in management:

  • Coordination problems
  • Forecasting problems
  • Cooperation problems

When coordination problems arise, employees, managers and entrepreneurs have to provide a challenging coordination service. How do companies organise their joint actions? How do you create a powerful organizational structure and workflow? How can innovative products be brought to market as quickly as possible (time to market)? How can supply chains be coordinated so that all participants in the supply chain exit with added value? How do numerous internal and inter-company processes interlock so that losses at the interfaces between divisions, departments or companies are kept to a minimum? For these complex questions, the swarm intelligence, which we can observe easily among ants, is ideally suited.

In the second big challenge, the forecasting problems, cases are dealt with for which there are naturally hardly any or no experts: How many pairs of shoes from this new model can be sold next season? What is the likelihood that the latest health product will be approved? What quantities of a particular raw material will be needed in the coming years? How many customers will want to buy the new car model? These are questions to which there may be or could be several correct answers, but for which some answers are better than others.

Where in the past – before the discovery of swarm intelligence – a few “selected so-called experts” made decisions, now the “knowledge of the many”, the swarm, is the focus.

Finally, the problems of cooperation: The name already says that these are problems in which the interaction of many people to form a – emergent – overall performance plays a dominant role. It is not the isolated and sometimes selfish vested interest that leads to the overall success of the company or the supply chain, but the supersummative cooperation of many individual participants along the supply chain. In this context I would like to refer to my book “Supply Chain Management. How you survive with networked thinking in the 21st century” (published by FAZ-Verlag), which focuses on cooperation problems. How should environmental pollution and social abuse be combated? How do you bring those involved in a supply chain together at one table? How can numerous companies be made to cooperate in order to achieve added value? How can products and services be “produced” in such a way that waste along the supply chain can be kept to a minimum or even avoided?

Ist somit in allen Fällen die Schwarmleistung immer größer als die Einzelleistung – auch von Experten? Freilich nicht. Aber es gibt, wie bereits ausgeführt, zahlreiche Probleme, die sich mit den Methoden der Schwarmintelligenz besser lösen lassen, als mit – vermeintlich – herausragenden Einzelpersonen. Somit können wir aufgewühlt, aber dennoch entspannt die Eingangsfrage, was können Manager von Ameisen lernen, beantworten:
Is therefore in all cases the swarm power always greater than the individual power – even from experts? Of course not. But, as already mentioned, there are numerous problems that can be solved better with the methods of swarm intelligence than with – supposedly – outstanding individuals. Thus we can answer the initial question “What can managers learn from ants?”:

Das Management der Zukunft, der Manager von morgen, muss die Voraussetzungen im Unternehmen schaffen, damit das nicht gehobene Potenzial, die Macht des Schwarms entdeckt und zum Vorteil aller Beteiligten genutzt werden kann. Somit ist der neue Manager, der Manager von morgen, vor allem Manager von Gruppen, Teams und Schwärmen.
The management of the future, the managers of tomorrow, must create the prerequisites in the company so that the untapped potential, the power of the swarm, can be discovered and used to the advantage of all those involved. Thus this new manager is first and foremost a manager of groups, teams and swarms.

You will find the first part of this article here: “Swarm intelligence – What we logisticians can learn from ants – Part I”. Further information can be found in the article “Ameisenalgorithmus”.

About Ernst Kurzmann

Ernst Kurzmann

Ernst Kurzmann is a lecturer in the fields of internationalization, logistics and supply chain management. He also holds a Master of Business Administration (FIBAA accreditation) and has been a business trainer and consultant in Austria for decades, specializing in statistical and mathematical calculations in logistics & supply chain management. Ernst Kurzmann gained his professional experience at renowned companies such as Unilever, Alcatel or PepsiCo. He has been self-employed for 20 years and has published his specialist book "Supply Chain Management. How to survive in the 21st century with networked thinking", which has become a bestseller in this field, among others. His current publication "ManagemANT - What specialists and managers can learn from ants. With Swarm Intelligence towards Corporate Success" was published in August, by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Buch Verlag F.A.Z.

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