The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

New work: learning from nature
Teamwork – Working environment

On the road to success with partners throughout the world

Collaboration. Nature shows how it’s done – organised systems are more successful. This also applies to companies in the era of digitization. Above all, they could take a leaf out of the book on “forest algorithms”.

Text Ingrid Kirsch ––– Photography

End-to-end networking, smart communications, optimal organisation and professional production. Nature shows how indispensable networking players, processes and information is for us nowadays – as much within individual companies as together with others in the same sector, players in different industries and fields, and even the competition. It also reveals how such networks and partnerships function efficiently and effectively, along the same lines as flora and fauna.

“Nature is a successful business that has never gone bust in millions of years.”

Gudrun Happich
Biologist, bionics expert and business coach

In effect, our woodlands and nature are nothing other than a Wood Wide Web. A wood-wide network of fungal filaments threading their way around the entire forest floor, acting in the same way as LAN connections in a computer network. The thin channels of the fungal hyphae ensure the essential exchange of nutrients, water and semiochemicals, while the trees transmit information to the plants that surround them. It’s a sophisticated system of give and take in which thin, white fungal filaments – encasing the roots of trees and plants like wadding – embellish the intricate network to supply additional water and nutrients. Trees and plants “remunerate” them in the form of carbohydrates. This is not a bad deal, considering that their collaboration partners also spin a communications web for the trees and plants. Trees are connected both chemically and electrically via these fungal networks, which enable them to warn one another about pests or nourish their offspring with sugar solution. 

But trees can do a lot more besides. They also transmit molecules above ground, releasing complex acids to ward off enemies, for instance, or gases to warn against approaching storms. In other words, the Wood Wide Web has many pathways and the trees are its most important servers. “Plants and animals constantly anticipate difficulties and can react faster to unexpected changes,” says the biologist, bionics expert and business coach Gudrun Happich, explaining the secret to survival employed by flora and fauna. “Nature is a successful business that has never gone bust in millions of years.”

Clever warning system – Under attack! Trees use special molecules to sound an alarm above ground to neighbouring plants if they come under attack.

Decentralised network with central data processing

The renowned botanist Stefano Mancuso (University of Florence) is working flat out to decipher the algorithm behind Nature’s network. He is convinced that plants are intelligent beings. What makes him so sure? It’s because the world of plants – in contrast to that of humans and animals – is not based on hierarchies but a decentralised network of equal elements. Instead of a central brain, trees, bushes and flowers use distributed intelligence – their root tips acting in the same way as data processing centres, and the individual plants forming a team that can react intelligently to its environment.

Thus the practice of sharing skills and knowledge is widespread in Nature and essential to the survival of species and ecosystems. When an ant finds food, it marks its return journey from the source to the nest with aromas. This makes the others more quickly aware of where to find sustenance. When bacteria cross paths, they instantaneously exchange gene sequences. This bacterial conjugation strengthens their resistance to medications. Ants like seeds because of the starch and sugar that they contain. They ingest the nutrients, clear the seeds from their nest, and in this way ensure that another blue flower blooms in exactly the same place next spring.

Learning from Nature’s example

What can management experts learn from ants and bacteria? The necessity of sharing information transparently and accurately in complex organisations. Both within companies (for example, between different departments that are supposed to collaborate) and across company boundaries. In this case, a partnership only flourishes and bears fruit if both sides benefit – for example, in cases where manufacturing companies collaborate with companies that produce machinery. Production supplies data from the machines’ sensors, while in turn the machinery manufacturers optimise their machines or provide smart maintenance services, all of which helps reduce downtimes. 

Intelligent aides – Roots both anchor trees in the ground and absorb water and nutrients. However, some substances can only be accessed by trees via fungi, whose mycelium can stretch for several kilometres and thus supply all the nutrients they require.

However, the ultimate key to any partnership is honesty. Anyone who deviates from this rule loses out. Wild orchids, which use pheromones to attract insects as fake sexual partners, experience this first-hand. The victims of this duplicity neither forgive nor forget. Not only do they not return to the flowers, but they inform their fellow insects of this deceit. As a result, wild orchids are threatened with extinction. Fakers eventually fail – in Nature and industry alike. The same applies to any products and services that don’t live up to the expectations awakened by lavish advertising. 

It is vital to look well ahead. Plants and animals don’t only react spontaneously to external influences – they keep on adapting predictively to their environment. For some species, such as the redwood, a crisis becomes an opportunity. It grows in areas where wildfires destroy forests. This is because it takes fire to launch the tree’s cones into the air and thus release its seeds. The lesson that companies can learn from this is to tackle change head-on and pro-actively instead of passively awaiting developments. This applies even more in times of upheaval. In other words, it’s better to embrace the megatrends of the 21st century – digitization, networking and mobility – and develop new products and lines of business together with partners.

back Part 2: Partners and Networks  

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