Mackay: Sharing knowledge leads to better decisions

Do you have a tough decision to make? Or are you trying to build consensus among other employees? If so, you might want to follow the way bees make their decisions, because according to researchers, human beings can learn volumes from bees when it comes to making group decisions.

Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley, in a Cornell Chronicle online story by Susan S. Lang, explains how bees build coalitions until a quorum develops. Seeley says bees rely on disagreement and contest, whereas humans often rely on consensus and compromise.

Researchers know the bees make excellent decisions because they set up situations that offered choices to the bees, some superior for bees and others not so great. The bees almost always chose the superior solutions.

For instance, a swarm of perhaps 10,000 honeybees decides where their next new home is going to be by sending out a few hundred scouts to look at real estate. If one finds a site it likes a lot, it begins dancing, which is the scout’s way of advertising the site to other scouts. Then the scout will revisit the site frequently and dance all day.

Other scouts select other sites and advertise those to other uncommitted scouts as well. Bee scouts build up at the best sites quickly, because they grade the level of recruitment, which is directly linked to site quality. When 15 or more scouts have gathered around a particular site, the scouts then signal home to the others to get ready to fly to the new home.

So what should humans learn from the bee dance? For starters, that frank discussions and disagreements coupled with some friendly competition might just help human committees achieve a little collective intelligence and avoid collective folly, researchers say.

Information hoarding is counterproductive in any organization. Knowledge sharing is central to companies’ success and generally encouraged by management. But often, employees are reluctant to give up what may be their best bargaining chip — some particular piece of information or expertise — and thereby maintain job security. Or perhaps there is an element of revenge or payback, trying to get even with the company or other employees. In any event, the end result is lost productivity and mistrust.

Managers need to encourage knowledge sharing if they want their companies to be successful. They must promote positive relationships among employees. Fair and respectful treatment of all employees is critical.

To help employees feel actively committed to success, management strategy should be based on the acronym STALL:

S: Share information. Financial information is crucial, of course. But operational information is just as vital. Employees should understand how one person’s work affects others in the organization — the domino effect.

T: Teach. Employees may not be aware of everything they need to know about company operations. Explain what the numbers on the financial reports mean, and show how individual efforts affect budgets and revenues in different areas.

A: Ask. Request the workforce’s full participation.

L: Listen. To foster a sense of ownership, commit to being open to new ideas from unexpected sources. Reward employees for their ideas. And don’t be surprised if their insights provide new perspectives.

L: Learn. Talk to staff and learn who the most influential employees are, who the “squeaky wheels” are and how to bring them on board.

Finally, don’t stall on the decisionmaking. It will only frustrate employees and engender mistrust.

Mackay’s Moral: Knowledge is not power until it is used.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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