How Collective Intelligence Can Improve Your Organisation

by Kayla Toh

I attended Geoff Mulgan’s talk at the RSA on how collective intelligence can change the world. Here’s what I learnt and how it can benefit your business.

The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) defines collective intelligence as the process by which a large group of individuals gather and share their knowledge, data and skills for the purpose of solving societal issues.

Collective wisdom may be a prominent topic in the modern world, but the mass collaboration of human brain power isn’t a new occurrence. One of the earliest examples of collective intelligence dates back to over 161 years ago, when a team of people toiled together for four decades to create a book that would contain every single piece of vocabulary in the English language – the Oxford English Dictionary.

The internet and astounding advances in machine learning have lead to a limitless amount of possibilities for collective intelligence. And there is evidence of this in way more platforms than we realise.  For example, Wikipedia – a platform that we all know and use – is a website where the whole world can collaborate around a single idea in order to improve it. Each Wikipedia page is made up of a global, multimedia, affordable, many-to-many communications system and one issue on which there is a growing consensus.

Wikipedia transformed the way we the world uses information and the effects of its extensive collaboration and user-participation lead to the invention of the term ‘Wikinomics’.

Tapscott & D.Williams, the authors of Wikinomics, predicted that the “killer application” for mass collaboration (Wikipedia), may turn out to save the planet. 12 years on and the CEO of NESTA, Geoff Mulgan, is similarly arguing that collective intelligence can change the world. And after 2017 saw the world turn upside down, it feels as if we could do with some much-needed change.

A New Wave of Collective Intelligence

Although Geoff Mulgan also acknowledges that collective intelligence is not a new concept, he notes that a new field of collective intelligence has emerged in recent years where artificial intelligence has become increasingly prominent. One where interconnected groups of people and computers work alongside each other to produce desirable results. This is supported by a wave of new digital technologies that make it possible for organisations and societies to think at large scale.

Mulgan argues that it is this combination of both human collective intelligence and machine collective intelligence that is our only solution to solving real world problems.

But the question that Geoff reiterates is; how do we make this happen?

According to him, creating this merge is our biggest current challenge. More so than climate change, the health crisis, prosperity, or nuclear war, because once we make progress in how we think and act together, these problems will be resolved as a result.

So, in order to achieve a fusion of both human and machine collective intelligence, we need a new approach.

Geoff’s book, “Big Mind”, explains that the ‘Silicon-Valley-collective-intelligence-approach’ to solving societal problems will only end in disappointment. In other words, organising a hackathon is only a ‘solutionist’ quick-fix, whereas the focus should be on a deeper understanding of the complex problem first. Problem-solving is an intricate and iterative process and needs labour, structure, and time.

Inspired by Mulgan’s vision to make communities “less dumb”, his book states that to develop a shared collective intelligence, we need group observation, the generation of models, predictions, creativity and judgement. Along with this, you need to be balanced in all of these factors, because; “if you’re too obsessed with observation, you’re bound to make mistakes”.

Using Collective Intelligence in the Workplace

As mentioned, the most important kinds of intelligence in the foreseeable future won’t be AI working alone but, rather, a collective intelligence that includes both people and computers. And this is where there is a major opportunity currently untapped by many organizations.

Combining machine intelligence and collective intelligence

The Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Thomas W. Malone, believes that with advancements in machine intelligence and human collective intelligence,  there’s an opportunity to shift the way we think about leadership and venture towards a new way of working. A way of working where we’re able to integrate AI into our business and enhance and empower the way our teams collectively do intelligent things for the benefit of the organisation.

A corporate scenario where it may be beneficial to combine human collective intelligence with machine knowledge, is when predicting the sales of fashion-driven products. There is a great deal of relevant data that can be analysed by computers, but some important factors are very difficult to quantify. For this, you would need several humans’ expertise knowledge and intuition for the retrieval of information and to prevent prediction errors.

Changing the workplace dynamic for collective intelligence

Organisational leaders and senior managers giving the orders and making important decisions is still the most common way to run a business. But this ‘top-down’ approach might not be the most effective or successful dynamic for the modern business.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki says: “The strategic decisions that corporations have to make are of mind-numbing complexity. But we know that the more power you give a single individual in the face of complexity and uncertainty, the more likely it is that bad decisions will get made.” As a result, there are good reasons for companies to try and think past hierarchy as a solution to cognitive problems.

The Wisdom of Crowds emphasises that the brainpower of many is always smarter than a few. So, why is this? 

In explanation, the average intelligence of a crowd will almost always be the same as the intelligence of one clever individual and people in numbers are much better at problem solving than one person alone.

We usually assume that the key to solving problems or making good decisions is to find that one right person who will have all the answers. But we should stop this costly need to chase the expert and start asking the crowd, which tends to include geniuses as well as everyone else.

Combining the brainpower of all the employees, instead of relying on a few senior thinkers, can benefit an organisation in three ways:

1. Productivity

2. Creativity

3. Coordination

Improving productivity through collective intelligence

Allowing your team to give feedback in meetings and sessions, in which you value their opinion and take it into consideration, you can improve productivity by making employees feel responsible for their own environment.

It’s proven that people perform better when they are able to make decisions on their working conditions, as they are able to be more flexible when they can adapt to their situation, rather than having to follow rules laid down from a superior that may or may not apply in this particular situation.

Organisations that aren’t inclusive and coefficient are more likely to have lower productivity, because team members that are passionate, motivated and keen to impress aren’t given opportunities where they are able to influence and encourage other colleagues.

Improving creativity through collective intelligence

When employees collaborate their knowledge to form solutions to organisational issues and actively see their efforts contributing to change, they feel as if they are key players. This results in them being more motivated, working harder and often being more creative.

Ideas and options will be more innovative and successful if they are derived from a collaborative brain power, as the ability to conspire with many different people helps lift up the group intelligence. Note that ‘different’ is the key! A diversity of perspectives brings new possibilities, different insights, endless potential networks and cultural competences that will set your organisation apart from others.

Allowing more inclusive decision making that involves employees as well as directors – from policymaking to planning and budgeting – where rapport is good and the environment is psychologically safe, will even result in introverted employees giving information and insights. This is because they know there will be no negative repercussions from participating.

In addition, this approach helps to prevent the extroverts from dominating discussions, as would typically happen in meetings. Open-ended and exploratory formats that make it easy for everyone to contribute, rein in the most vocal, and give people time to think before speaking, are likely to be the most effective at getting business results from collective intelligence.

Improving coordination through collective intelligence

Allowing opportunities for collective intelligence in your organisation will make coordination easier. It allows workers to find new, more efficient ways of getting things done. In turn, this reduces the need for supervision, which saves managers time and allows them to concentrate on other things, whilst also cutting transaction costs.

Better coordination can also result in you needing to hire less new talent. As you’ll be leveraging masses of talent amongst your employees instead.

Different members of the group could bring different pieces of information to bear on a problem. So, a group can uncover possible alternatives or solutions, but they can also debate and decide amongst themselves, distinguishing the good from the bad.

Remember that collective intelligence does not mean that all participants are intelligent or have the same IQ. Studies show that a group made of some smart agents and some not so smart agents almost always did better than a group made up of just clever people.

Surowiecki learnt that; “adding in a few people who know less, but have different skills, actually improves the group’s performance”.

If we can gather anything from the study of collective intelligence, it is that great minds may think alike, but a large group of diverse minds can create ideas that one mind is not capable of creating alone.

But, as with any theory, there are always counteractive arguments. We should also be thinking about the paradox of intelligence at scale – crowds can be as deluded as they are wise.

As Geoff Mulgan rightly claimed in his discussion last week, politics can often be a prime example of collective stupidity: “The more smart people that Ed Miliband surrounds himself with, the more stupid his party becomes”. 

In order for collective intelligence to be successful at providing solutions to problems within an organisation, we must understand what makes a group or team smart instead of dumb.

The three underlying factors to profitable collective intelligence are: social sensitivity and “Theory of Mind”, an even contribution to team discussions, and how diverse the group is. In particular, how many women are in the group.

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