Have you ever felt a surge of ideas gushing up when you are in a group conversation? Have you also felt at ease in sharing those ideas only to see them transform into something bigger? That’s called Collective Intelligence at work. With organizations promoting the culture of innovation, the much-ignored potential of Collective Intelligence to solve problems must be realized and tapped.
What is Collective Intelligence?
Biologically speaking, collective minds have always existed. Some of the examples include colonies of bacteria, bees, ants, wasps and other animals that work together. Even in human beings, there are familiar instances of collective minds such as hobby groups, college clubs, and teams in companies. Thomas W. Malone (Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence) defines Collective Intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. The fascinating thing about Collective Intelligence is that, it is not simply a sum of the individual intelligence of group members.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Malone’s research clearly suggests that the average and the maximum intelligence of the individual group members was correlated, but only moderately, with the collective intelligence of the group as a whole. What does this mean? When you are with the right people in the right environment and at the right state of mind, your group has the potential of creating breakthroughs in your respective line of expertise. This could be about a problem and solving it. All this, irrespective of your or the group members' individual levels of intelligence.
Collective Intelligence as one of the core functions of HR
It is time that building Collective Intelligence be made a core function of the HR department, especially in organizations where innovation is of prime importance. With this perspective, it is no more just about good teamwork to get tasks done within deadlines; it is about what can arise when teams interact well. It is about exploring ways to actualize organization's true potential through Collective Intelligence. And this responsibility needs to be taken up by the HR. How we can set a foundation for this during induction of new employees; how we can impart this systematically through training and development; what needs to be changed at the systemic level to let Collective Intelligence flourish, are the questions which should be dealt by HR as a part of their day-to-day job responsibilities.
There is a lot of research being done in the west regarding Collective Intelligence, especially with Internet and Artificial Intelligence in the big picture. The results of this research would be fascinating. I am especially looking forward to knowing how Collective Intelligence can be measured in specialized groups just like human intelligence is measured in terms of IQ. Methods for measuring Group IQ exist but the score does not really mean the quotient by itself. There is hardly any research being done in India about this. HR professionals should try and test different things and contribute their insights.
What can help in improving Collective Intelligence?
(I am not an expert, but I can share some of my observations regarding this.)
- Purpose/Mission which is relatable and exciting enough to ring people together: ISRO is a great example in this context. The love for country mixed with the passion for science and the mission of taking the country's space technology to the next level brings employees together. Imagine rocket scientists and engineers pooling their intelligence to innovate. The resultant Collective Intelligence could be huge! On similar lines, organizations should make their purpose or mission simple and relatable yet reflective of the urge to solve a problem so much so that it feels smack-in-the-face every time employees let their egos take over effective problem-solving in a discussion.
- Rapport to promote psychological safety: Rapport building activities are not only essential for Employee Engagement but also for employees to feel safe in bouncing off ideas and come up with good solutions. According to Wikipedia, psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Employees should feel free and relaxed to share ideas in the group. An idea, no matter how crazy, should never be underestimated, because a lot of times an idea leads to another and possibly an unexpected solution or innovation. HR should train and encourage reporting managers to create an environment where employees do not feel judged or afraid, rather an environment where they look forward to share ideas. (I have personally experienced that humor can be a great tool to build rapport and trust. After a point, the group members get so comfortable with each other that humor comes naturally, further strengthening their rapport.)
- Flatter hierarchies for ideas to travel faster: Flatter hierarchies in organizations mean less bureaucracy to discuss, approve and implement good ideas. This is where HR can play a crucial role in business strategy with the management. Flat hierarchies also help in recognizing talent quickly; identify sources of innovative thinking and building connection between all levels which in turn, increases psychological safety. Overall, there is more synergy and cohesiveness; insights from all levels mean the emergence of higher Collective Intelligence than usual.
- Discussion techniques which uphold open-mindedness more than consensus: I had read somewhere that the quality of discussion determines the quality of decision. Techniques like Design Thinking and Six Thinking Hats let groups explore all facets of a problem or question; divergent thinking should be encouraged in general. It is very crucial to understand that reaching balanced and/or innovative solutions is more important than simply reaching a solution that is agreed upon by all members. Often, a lot of aspects never come up in a discussion only because the discussion stops after reaching a consensus. Research has found that effective groups encourage conflicts so that they can explore as many elements and perspectives to the problem as possible.
With Collective Intelligence as a core function, HR professionals will have a new-found power in strategic thinking and can take their organization to the next level of problem-solving and innovation. It is time to seize this crucial resource, develop and nurture it to reach greater heights of success and glory.