Blog: What Nature Can Teach Us About Supply Chain Collaboration

By Maria Marchesi

supply chain collaboration

Compared to related areas like procurement, logistics, and manufacturing, “Supply Chain Management” is still young. The term ‘supply chain’ first appeared in the newspaper The Independent in 1905; the term “Supply chain management or SCM” wasn’t coined till nearly 80 years later by Keith Oliver. However, the concepts of an interconnected network of suppliers, producers/manufacturers, and consumers have been around for a long time prior to even those fields. The argument could be made that the supply chain predates human civilization.  

Humans weren’t the first to discover collaboration, especially when it comes to supply chains. Animals and insects have been doing it for millennia. Insects have developed systems involving collaborative, meaningful processes that we can learn from. While the comparison may be simplistic, it helps to underline the importance of a collaborative network that communicates well, complements one another, and is adaptable to changing environments. Nature shows us that we can achieve more together than we could alone. So, what lessons can the Animal and Insect kingdoms teach us as supply chain professionals?

Ants Have Flawless Cooperation and Sourcing Instincts 

Ants are a shining example of effective resource management.  Ants, like other insects, use chemosensing, allowing ants to recognize and detect the location of chemicals like sugar and other food. When these chemicals are present (even at low concentrations), they can be detected as smells by the olfactory receptors on the insect’s body.

Ants find what they need and then communicate its location through a combination of signals and cues, leaving a chemical trail that other ants can follow. This trail leads to food sources, nesting sites, or other vital locations critical to their survival. Ants can also use visual cues such as an object’s color, shape, and area to locate resources. This communication and information sharing helps the entire colony find resources and work together to collect and “warehouse” supplies for later use.

The orchestration of ant colonies is similar to today’s modern supply chain, where demand and supply signals direct businesses on how where to source materials and how much they’ll need, and what are the best product movements to get it to the right place in time. They also know what they’ll need in the future and allocate just the right amount to storage. Not only are ants efficient in finding the proper inventory, but they consume only what they need and store excess for future use by their community—communication, conservation, and cooperation all in a 25-millimeter-long six-legged package.

Squirrels Make Intelligent Decisions, Despite Poor Long-Term Visibility

Another example from nature are the ever-present squirrels seen in parks, neighborhoods, and backyards everywhere. These animals are surprisingly intelligent creatures who know they need to save food for the winter but have a short memory span. This could create a massive issue. However, this constraint doesn’t slow them down; their survival is at stake. So, instead, they make decisions as a community. That way, if one squirrel forgets where it’s hidden its food, another is likely to find it. This way, food supplies are never lost. They rely on one another’s stock to keep them strong and share their inventory to make it through tough times. As a bonus, if their stock goes untouched for the season, it becomes a seed for a new tree next season and continues to serve the community.

I don’t know if supply chain professionals would choose to identify with squirrels, but some commonalities do exist. First, squirrels have a strong understanding of lead times. In a season when nuts (or products) are either plentiful or scarce, they take signals from nature to know when to gather items sparingly and when to stockpile. Next, they support one another; trading partners are also intertwined within a community that relies heavily on each other for survival. Communicating inventory availability across the community allows everyone to stay “well fed.”

Lastly, squirrels are responsible for maintaining and storing their resources. Sustainability is essential for businesses and the environment; in either situation, waste comes at a terrible cost, possibly resulting in not surviving a harsh season. For supply chain professionals, the stakes are not quite “life or death,” but it can sometimes feel like it.  As supply chain professionals, we need to repurpose what we can to grow stronger and continue to add new resources (aka trees) to meet future needs caused by obsolescence or growth.

Supply Chain “in a nutshell.”

In conclusion, we can learn much about effective supply chain collaboration from nature. As the field of supply chain management continues to evolve, taking cues from the natural world may help businesses create more effective, efficient, and resilient supply chains that can withstand even the toughest challenges. Ants and squirrels are strong examples demonstrating the power of communication, cooperation, and responsible resource management. The successful collaboration of ant colonies and the intelligent decision-making of squirrels are models that supply chain professionals can follow to help ensure the success and sustainability of their networks.

While squirrels have had the benefit of working out how to optimize their supply chain management skills for the last 41.3 million years and 100 million for insects to develop strong communication networks, we, as supply chain professionals, don’t have the luxury of that amount of time to figure it all out. We, therefore, have to rely on Supply Chain Planning Software like GAINS to:

  • Right-Size Inventory
  • Synchronize Supply Chain Planning across organizations
  • Adapt to changing demand patterns
  • Coordinate decision-making across distributed cross-functional teams
  • Incorporate external syndicated data

Contact Us To Request a Demo if you would like to learn more about how you can “evolve” your Supply Chain using a fully integrated multi-echelon supply chain optimization and planning software solution trusted by industry leaders and customers across the globe.