What Can Blue-Tits Teach Us About Business?

Currently, my little London garden is full of birds. A family of blue-tits is nesting on one side, and a wren family on the other.  The magpies are in full chatter in the early morning, the black birds dig for worms after the rain, and the occasional robin drops by. It’s a constant source of delight for me and for a neighbourhood cat who terrorizes the nester by lurking on a nearby roof and staring at them.

Watching the blue tits, I was reminded of a story from the business guru, Arie de Geus. He was one of the team of hot shots at Shell which brought Scenario Planning (the technique of asking off-the wall, what-if questions to help deal with business risk) to the attention of the business world. He’s also a personal hero of mine.

Some years ago I had the chance to go and listen to him speak at the London Business School. The talk was all about Knowledge management – how businesses can share and spread knowledge and learning across the organisation and beyond. I was beside myself with delight. The talk started slowly, and I found myself dozing, until I heard Arie mention that, in his research on Knowledge Management, one of the sources he had consulted was a specialist in bird behaviour, bird communication and how birds learn.

This sounded sufficiently quirky as to be interesting, so I paid attention.

According to the expert, different types of bird learn from each other in different ways. Before World War II, milk was delivered to homes in the UK in open containers. It was a common sight to see robins and blue-tits having a quick drink from the containers. Back then they didn’t do skimmed, or semi-skimmed. Milk choices were pretty much restricted to full fat, and the birds loved it.

After the war, the UK dairy companies moved over to supplying milk in bottles with a tin foil top. It was more hygienic, particularly as the mild bottles might site around on the door-step for several hours. At first the birds were foiled (excuse the pun), but the more enterprising ones soon figured out how to break through the foil and get back to their old habits.

Within a generation or two, in most areas across the UK, blue-tits could be found treating themselves to doorstep milk from these new bottles. I can remember my mother’s irritation when she went to take the mil in, only to discover the blue-tits had been there before her. But the robins failed to work it out.

The experts asked themselves why this might be. After all, both birds obviously liked milk, individuals in both species had learned how to deal with the new technology, yet only the blue-tits had gone nation-wide on breaking through the bottle tops.

They came to the conclusion that the reason for the differences in behaviour lay in the different social habits of blue-tits and robins. In the autumn, after the breeding season, blue tits flock and come together. New behaviours can be shared, and learning spreads quickly through the blue-tit population.

Robins, on the other hand, are solitary, territorial – even aggressive – little birds.  No flocking for them. The lonesome robin soldiers on, ignorant of how to deal with the new technology, and fiercely defending his right to stay apart from the rest.

I’m sure you know people who are like that too!

So here is the question, when it come to you and your business, are you a robin or a blue-tit? A flocker, or a solitary little bird? How do you develop your knowledge and stay ahead of the challenges and opportunities present by the new technology?

About Dr Jane

Leave A Comment...

*

Subscribe without commenting