Ants?…KM! Ants?…KM! KM?…Yes, KM!

Meat eating ant feeding on honey.

Ants when scouting for new nesting sites or food sources have no leader giving orders. Instead as they travel they leave a trail of scent for other ants, called “scouts”, to follow. Scouts that find a good nesting site or food source in turn leave more scent along the same trail. Eventually, one site is selected from many potential sites in a sort of “chemical democracy” based on the strongest combined chemical strength left by more and more scouts. This organizing process is both simple and powerful. And so without any need for bosses they efficiently find new places to live and new food sources.

So what do ants have to do with Knowledge Management? Glad you asked!

Supposedly, “ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organized colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals.” (Wikipedia: Ants) I’ll accept that as it is, since I have no desire to go out and conduct an ant census.

What I find particularly interesting though is that ants have a demonstrated ability to solve complex problems. “The colonies are sometimes described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.” Ants are viewed as the best known example of a superorganism. (Wikipedia: Ants)

It’s especially interesting to learn how ants deal with disruption. For example – fire. Fires happen all of the time, and many “outside fires” impact the lives of ants. A fire disrupts the chemical trail. And when that happens chaos ensues and ants run in every direction to escape the dangers of the fire. And then begins the problem solving – scout ants immediately head out in multiple directions in an attempt to find a successful route to their nests or food source. Eventually a scout will be successful and then other scouts find that chemical trail, and so on, until enough scent is deposited that this then becomes the new trail.

Now it occurs to me that we have a corollary in the world of Knowledge Management. We often refer to it as “self-organizing knowledge.” A fair amount of research conducted to date suggests that the very nature of people will drive a need to self-organize, and that managing our knowledge is very much a fundamental task of our knowledge-based society. The central premise is that “all societies are based on human activity that produces subjective and objective knowledge” and that “hence all societies are knowledge societies” and that we learn fairly early on that “individually acquired knowledge can be put to use efficiently by entering a social co-ordination and co-operation process.” (“Knowledge Management in Self-Organizing Social Systems”, Christian Fuchs, 2004).

So in short, what we typically see is that we have people in organizations that hold individually acquired knowledge, and they collectively then begin to organize that knowledge. And when you look at that from the same perspective as with the ants and their chemical trail, you can begin to see emerging patterns – as some knowledge is more useful than other knowledge. And some knowledge sources are visited by more “knowledge ants” than others. The patterns are in a real sense, evidence of knowledge relationships.

Aesop's ants: picture by Milo Winter, 1888-1956.

Knowledge mapping is an externalization of those knowledge relationships, in that a good knowledge map can be used to determine sources of knowledge within the organization. A knowledge map can show how knowledge flows throughout the organization, and even show external connections. A knowledge map is to your organization what the chemical trails are to the ants. And a good knowledge map even serves to tell a bit of a story about your organization, who connects to who or what — where the knowledge is held or maintained.


The ants need the chemical trails to ensure that they are able to efficiently and effectively search for new food sources. To be able to scout for new locations to move the nests and colonies. The driver for the ants is that if they do not do all that they must do today, to both lay out those trails and to ensure that other ants get to where they also need to go, they do not survive. It is their innate understanding that what they do today allows the colony to survive tomorrow.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
While we may (or may not) readily see that self-organizing knowledge in our organizations, it is critical that we are able to lay out our own “trails” to important knowledge so that the other “ant scouts” can come behind us and find what we have already found. To document those knowledge relationships. And having in place an effective (current, detailed, devoid of politics that foster the “not invented here” attitudes) knowledge map is critical to successful knowledge management implementation.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch