Social Learning: What Can We Learn From Bees?

Bee on flower getting nectar

In Social Physics, Alex Pentland outlines the major effect our patterns of interaction have on our productivity and creativity. Drawing on a wealth of sociometric data gathered from a host of organisations, Pentland identifies two processes that creativity is dependent upon 1) idea discovery and 2) the integration of ideas and new behaviours into the daily practices of both teams and the wider organisation. Pentland calls idea discovery “exploration” and the latter translational process “engagement.” To be a high-creative group or organisation, Pentland says, you need to have both high face-to-face exploration outside the group and high engagement within the group.

All this is well and good, but the problem – as with most things – is working out how to both explore and engage in an efficient manner. Of course, no one is superhuman and can be both out in the world discovering new ideas and trying to change the behaviour of people in their group all the time. As Pentland says, the best solution is to alternate between exploration and engagement, to strike a balance between looking forward and focusing on the now. But how?

The Honeybee

Pentland finds a unique model for doing just this in the natural world: the honeybee. Worker bees regularly go out and explore for a good food source. When exploratory bees return to the hive, those that believe they have found a new food source will perform a “waggle dance” to their community. Researchers have discovered that this groovy little dance is performed to communicate to other bees where and how far away the food source is. It is the bee’s method of encouraging other bees to change their behaviour, to go try out the new food source.

Pentland’s key insight is that this same waggle-dance mechanism is the basis for most of the bee colony’s group decision-making. Deciding where a bee colony is going to locate its nest is one of the most important decisions the group makes. To do this they use what Pentland thinks of as a sort of “idea machine”. Initially, the colony will send out a small scouting party to survey the local environment. Then when scouts that have found a promising area return to the hive they will communicate this by performing an intense, active waggle dance. Other bees will change their behaviour thereafter, following the scouts to the new area to survey it for themselves. When that larger scouting party returns they then perform a waggle dance to convince more members of the colony to follow them to the new site. Eventually, after a few revolutions of this cycle, if the majority of the hive’s members are performing an assenting waggle dance then a tipping point is reached that forces the whole colony into a decision. Subsequently, the hive moves en masse.

What does this mean for us?

This decision-making process highlights how the bees productively oscillate between exploration and engagement. The “idea machine” Pentland identifies is one that invites what is known as “creative abrasion” – a phrase that describes an environment where trialling new and oftentimes radical ideas is encouraged and old ideas are not unquestionable but can be productively challenged. Collective intelligence is inevitably enhanced as a result of this process. Moreover, the bees’ strategy shows how learning is influenced and accelerated by social consensus, by an overall agreement on the process of decision-making and the goals of the group.

On a wider level, it relates to the idea that social learning has a potent impact on “social norms” and “cultural display rules”. In other words, our behaviour is significantly influenced by that of others in our group. The implicit “rules” or “norms” generated by a group’s behaviour can be adaptive and healthy or maladaptive and dysfunctional. The reason idea flow – which can be good or bad – is important is because the formation of new habits appears to be driven by it and social exposure more broadly. Since we learn from the ideas that surround us and are products and prisoners of our culture, it is crucial that we are open to new ideas and that idea flow in our groups is diverse and progressive.

It is crucial for businesses and other organisations to try to develop a rich social learning environment where interaction becomes the best predictor of productivity. Environments in which we are encouraged to learn socially and collectively are better at facilitating opportunities for repeated cooperative behaviour. This is excellent for building trust – an essential catalyst for further collaboration. To create such an environment it is important that individuals are cognitively flexible, intellectually curious, and possess a growth mindset – these are all characteristics of healthy and adaptive leaders.

Individual, Team, and Organisation

There are three essential components that influence idea flow, communication, and this potent interactional dynamic of social learning. These are variables relating to individuals, teams, and the organisation.

To bring about positive change, groups must identify at what level obstacles to progress might be and how they can be addressed. For instance, it is worth asking whether individuals feel encouraged to bring up new ideas, to “waggle” as the bees do, and questioning how leaders and team members treat these people and their ideas. Progressive organisations are actively doing this. They address factors that can support creative abrasion, enrich collective intelligence, and enhance idea flow, understanding that these are the catalysts of growth and innovation. As a result, such organisations are better able to challenge the status quo, to break down cultural echo chambers, and to countenance, accept, and adapt to change – which is crucial in today’s ever-changing environment.

Positive is working to help organisations to do exactly this. At the individual level, Positive translates knowledge from diverse scientific fields into tools and techniques that help enhance confidence, communication, cognitive flexibility, and, if you will, the ability to “waggle”. At the team level, Positive works to ensure that people are both listened to and given a voice and that the team is enabled to fulfil its potential through the generative process of idea flow, making the sum truly greater than its parts. And finally at the organisational level, Positive examines those factors that can increase trust and create safety, both of which substantially increase motivation, engagement, and discretionary effort.

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