How to tap into swarm intelligence

In complex and dynamic environments, a high degree of adaptability is required. Unfortunately, organizations are often too sluggish to react quickly and effectively to changes in the environment.

In the animal kingdom, we observe a considerably faster and consistent response of entire swarms to impulses. Swarms move like a unified organism. None of the animals of the same species is the leader: all animals observe their environment attentively. If a swarm animal notices a danger or a source of prey, it immediately changes its direction. This movement is a signal for all neighboring animals, which they pick up and immediately imitate. Their neighbors, in turn, pick up on this change in movement and implement it as well until the entire swarm has made the change. This rapid relaying of alarm signals is called the Trafalgar effect.

Unlike humans, swarm animals are genetically born with this copying impulse. Individual animals benefit from the collective observation of all animals in the swarm because of their organization in the swarm. The swarm is kept close together because nature has implanted in the animals that they have the highest chance of survival inside the swarm, because here (i) the probability of being eaten decreases, because (ii) the probability of being able to mate and strengthen the swarm increases, and because (iii) a swarm can deter predators more effectively than individual animals.

Thus, swarm behavior is rational and makes sense. What prevents us from implementing swarm behavior in organizations so that all organizational members rapidly perform common movements?

Behavioral scientists and organizational developers are concerned with this issue. Andreas Remer and Sophia Lux from the University of Bayreuth have also looked into this matter and come to interesting conclusions that can serve as pointers for companies.

Remer and Lux find that the success concept of swarm animals is based on cohesion and on the ability to quickly self-coordinate. They note that swarm behavior requires unconditional trust (cf. also Luhmann, Niklas: Vertrauen – Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität, Uni-Taschenbücher 1973).

Social communities are initially held together by the homogeneity of their members (Durkheim, E.: On Social Division of Labor, Suhrkamp 1996, p. 156 f.). As communities grow, members eventually begin to derive more value from heterogeneity and the complementarity that comes with it (Durkheim, E.: On Social Division of Labor, Suhrkamp 1996, pp. 183 and 336). Larger communities can therefore strengthen the cohesion of the members by promoting an individualization of their members. This would first give us “the swarm” itself.

Following animal swarms, the rapid “swarming” behavior of corporations can apparently be fostered by increasing mutual trust among members and by educating members as much as possible about the purpose and operation of the organization. The adaptability of companies can apparently be significantly improved by meaningful, systemic leadership and good communication.

Swarm intelligence is also a valuable building block for agile working


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