You may not have heard of Anita Woolley, but her contribution to workplace psychology has been immense. She is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University. Her main claim to fame is the concept of ‘collective intelligence,’ the fact that just like individuals, teams possess a certain level of intelligence. We have had IQ, EQ, SQ (spiritual quotient, very 1995) and now some folks call this CQ, but probably just to sell assessments and workshops, so we’ll stick with the full term.
At the heart of collective intelligence there has been some extremely serious research, some outstanding and some interesting, (not necessarily the same thing) results. For example? Her research in 2010, published in the Journal of Science, showed that team intelligence is positively correlated with the number of women on the team and it supports the belief that there is value in bringing diverse people into teams. It provides a superb argument for surrounding ourselves with people who are different to us, oh and who are not afraid to disagree with us. She provides many examples, including Olympic Hockey Teams, even Presidential Cabinets as we can see here:
Sure, we all know that teams need a balance, going right back to the 1980s with the work of R Meredith Belbin where his research showed that even teams made up of the brightest, most confident individuals, which he called, (incorrectly) Apollo Teams, fared far less well than those teams that had a balance, ie made up of folks with different personalities. However, this is about collective intelligence and, although it may be what your granny always told you that ‘many heads are better than one,’ the research shows just how far that is true and what a difference it can make to have a higher level of collective intelligence. So what is it in essence?
Collective intelligence refers to the ability of groups, organisations, or even communities to perform tasks, solve problems, make the right decisions far more effectively and efficiently than would be possible for an individual or isolated group members. It's the idea that the combined knowledge, skills, insights, experience and expertise of a group can far surpass the capabilities of any single individual within that group. So what are the key benefits to us in the workplace?
Collective intelligence benefits from diverse perspectives and expertise within a group. When individuals with different backgrounds, skills, and knowledge collaborate, they can collectively generate a much wider range of ideas and solutions.
Collaborative Problem Solving
Groups or teams with high collective intelligence excel in collaborative problem-solving. They can pool their resources and insights to tackle complex issues or tasks. None approach the project thinking, ‘this is my idea,’ and so any ‘intellectual property, takes second place to the open sharing of ideas within the group. It encourages a greater depth of scrutiny, for example more expert minds scrutinising an idea will identify any flaws.
Better, more effective communication
This is crucial for collective intelligence. Members need to share their ideas and information openly and engage in constructive discussions and even criticism, to refine their collective knowledge. Projects will be opened up ‘horizontally’ providing all contributors equal footing and freedom in generating ideas, without any hierarchy or ‘pressure from above.’
Collective intelligence is linked to far improved and superior decision-making. Groups that make decisions collectively can consider a broader range of factors and perspectives, which can lead to better-informed and genuinely innovative conclusions.
In some cases, the ability of a group to read and respond to social cues among its members, often known as ‘social sensitivity,’ can enhance collective intelligence. It helps in managing conflicts, fostering trust, and ensuring effective collaboration.
Technology and Information Sharing
In our modern world, technology, particularly digital platforms and tools, play a significant role in facilitating collective intelligence. Online communities, collaborative software, and crowdsourcing platforms enable large groups of people to collectively contribute to knowledge and problem-solving. Some examples? We can see collective intelligence in various settings, from online forums where users collectively solve technical problems to brainstorming sessions in business meetings, and even in ‘citizen science’ projects where volunteers contribute to scientific research.
Large scale collaboration
Modern technology also provides the opportunity for groups to open up across their entire network of talent and engage a far wider group of people and it thus breaks down barriers like functions, departments, geographies, etc utilising a far broader and diverse range of talent.
The best example of collective intelligence? It has to be the search engine Google. Individuals, groups and organisations constantly add small pieces of information to the internet and the collective intelligence of all those individuals creates a database that can solve nearly every problem.
Interestingly, collective intelligence has been found to consistently over time be entirely predictive of the future performance of groups and teams.
Collective intelligence has gained significant attention in fields like business, academia, and technology due to its potential to harness the collective wisdom and abilities of groups for innovation, problem-solving, and decision-making. It underscores the idea that, under the right conditions and with effective processes in place, groups can achieve outcomes that far surpass what individual members could ever achieve independently. As Jennifer Sundberg puts it in her new book, (out October 2023): “Businesses full of smart people (and led by them) make stupid decisions all the time. Instead, in today’s rapidly changing, uncertain world you need to design your business itself to be intelligent, to harness the collective abilities of its people by systematically addressing critical thinking, communication and focus.” So, ‘building an intelligent business,’ not just ‘filling a business with intelligent people.’