I recently read a fascinating online conversation on Collective Intelligence with Tom Malone. Malone is Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI). The CCI was founded to study how new communications technologies are changing the way people work together. In particular, it is studying the various ways that groups of people are now
collaborating via the Internet, in order to understand how to best
organize these collaborations and enhance them with innovative IT-based
tools and platforms.
Collective intelligence is not a new topic. From time immemorial, groups of people working together have acted in ways that seem intelligent. But, as Malone points out, “It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence. Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity.”
The CCI is conducting research on a number of topics related to collective intelligence. One of the most intriguing is their attempt to try to ascertain if something like collective intelligence indeed exists, and if so, to try to measure a group’s intelligence using methodologies and statistical techniques similar to those that have been applied to individual intelligence for the past hundred years.
Early in the 20th century it was discovered that people’s cognitive abilities tend to be similar across a wide variety of tasks, that is, if you perform well in one such cognitive task you are likely to also perform well in others even though they may be quite different. Such a general cognitive intelligence can be statistically captured in something called the g factor, which is a major component of tests measuring the Intelligent Quotient (IQ) of individuals.
Malone and his colleagues wondered if a similar definition of intelligence could apply to groups of people. That is, do groups, like individuals, exhibit characteristic levels of intelligence which can be measured and used to predict the group’s performance across a wide variety of cognitive tasks. And if so, can they find a statistically significant c factor, a measure of the group’s collective intelligence analogous to an individual’s IQ and g factor.
To answer these questions they conducted two separate studies. In the first, they randomly assigned individuals to 40 different three-person groups. These groups worked together on a diverse set of tasks including solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgements and negotiating over limited resources. In the second study, they formed 152 groups ranging from two to five members to try to replicate the findings of the first study with groups of different sizes, using a broader sample of tasks. In both studies, they also measured the individual IQs of each of the participants.
Their research results were published in the October 2010 issue of Science. They did indeed find a statistically significant c factor that predicts how well each group will do on a wide range of tasks. But, neither the average intelligence of the individual group members nor the highest individual intelligence were strong predictors of the group’s overall performance. They also looked at group cohesion, motivation and satisfaction, but none of them worked either.
They did find three group attributes that significantly correlated with a c factor or collective IQ. The first was the average social sensitivity of group members as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test originally developed at the Autism Research Center in the University of Cambridge. This is a measure of social perceptiveness, that is, the ability of group members to read each other’s emotions. They also found that groups in which a few people dominated the conversation did not perform as well as those groups where speaking and contributions were more evenly distributed. Finally, the studies found that collective intelligence positively correlated with the proportion of women in the group. This is likely because as previous research at the Autism Research Center has shown, women generally score higher than men in tests of empathy or social sensitivity.
Although much additional research is needed, there seems to be evidence that something like collective intelligence does indeed exist and can be measured. If so, is it possible to create more intelligent organizations? While it is very difficult to make an individual more intelligent, is it possible to improve a group’s collective intelligence, especially with web-based groups where there is more flexibility in how to mediate their collaboration with different organizational structures and IT-based tools and platforms?
Another CCI project is aiming to answer these questions by trying to understand the intrinsic nature of intelligent organizations. The project has been analyzing the organizational structure of lots of existing institutions. It has identified a set of organizational genes or basic building blocks that apply to just about all of them, as well as a number of design patterns that come up over and over. And it is then searching for the genomes of collective intelligence, that is, the characteristic design patterns of organizations that seem to better harness the collective intelligence of their groups.
The CCI has collected over 200 examples of web-based organizations, including the Linux community, Wikipedia, Innocentive, Threadless, Amazon.com and Google. These are available in an editable handbook of collective intelligence, hosted by the CCI but with contributions from researchers from around the world. Their analysis identified a small set of building blocks or organizational genes that are combined and recombined in various ways in the institutions they studied. The building blocks were identified by systematically answering each of these four key questions: Who is performing the task? Why are they doing it? What is being accomplished? How is it being done?
The CCI’s work is driven by a basic research question: “How can people and computers be connected so that - collectively - they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?” Their research projects are still in the very early stages. But hopefully, over time, these collective intelligence concepts will help managers assemble more effective groups to address highly complex problems, as well as improve the overall performance of their organizations.
In the online conversation, Professor Malone addresses a very important question that comes up when first considering a brand new concept like collective intelligence.
“Why are we doing all this work?”
“There are at least three answers. The first is, as scientists, we want to understand how the world works, and in particular, how the world of groups of people and computers work together. How human societies and human networks work. Second, we want to help businesses, governments and other kinds of organizations know how to work better themselves. How can we create more intelligent organizations, more intelligent businesses, more intelligent governments, more intelligent societies?”
“Third, in a way, we are trying to understand how our whole world and society is evolving in a way that I think is making us more collectively intelligent. You could say that the Internet is one way of greatly accelerating the connections among different people and computers on our planet. As all the people and computers on our planet get more and more closely connected, it's becoming increasingly useful to think of all the people and computers on the planet as a kind of global brain.”
“Our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.”