How Collective Intelligence Can Empower Workers And Develop Leaders

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by Daisy Hernandez, Global Vice President of Product Management, Enterprise Collaboration at SAP

Imagine organizations that have optimized how their employees and technology work together. MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. Thomas Malone helps companies brainstorm — and reverse engineer — their very best selves with collective intelligence, which he defines as “groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent.

Improving collective intelligence can help organizations decide when to freely share their knowledge, according to Malone, founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and author of The Future of Work. It can also help them deal with the management paradoxes they’ll face in the future.

Daisy Hernandez (DH): Collective intelligence is a concept that you helped pioneer at MIT. Can you tell us more about it?

Thomas Malone (TM): We are already living in a collectively intelligent world because companies, countries and many other groups often act intelligently. But the most interesting examples of collective intelligence take the idea of humans and computers working together a step further; they examine how machines are making us smarter than we have ever been, and how this newfound knowledge is going to impact the world. At the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, we are investigating how people and computers together can be more intelligent than any person, group or computer has ever been before.

DH: What steps must businesses take to foster more collective intelligence?

TM: All companies are collectively intelligent to some extent. Today, it’s about how they can become more collectively intelligent as technology continues to advance. At this stage, I encourage leaders to take a step back from the day-to-day and consider what their business would look like if it had perfect collective intelligence.

By participating in this exercise, leaders can envision possible futures for their company. From there, they can work backwards to identify the steps they need to take to become more collectively intelligent right now. While no company will ever have perfect collective intelligence, this exercise will give leaders the vision and first steps to move in that direction.

DH: As we move towards a more collectively intelligent world where knowledge is power, why should employees feel compelled to share their hard-earned knowledge with others?

TM:  In this situation, you have to consider what is your motivation for putting your hard-earned, specialized knowledge online where anyone can access it for free, even if that is just anyone else in your organization. In this type of environment, it’s not necessarily stupid to keep your expertise to yourself.

One of the important question for organizations is how they create the right incentives for people to share their knowledge in ways that others, at least in the organization, can take advantage of. If you share your knowledge, you have the potential of establishing yourself as an expert, and therefore other people may be more willing to share their knowledge with you.

DH: In a collectively intelligent world, what qualities do leaders need to succeed? How will their roles change?

TM: This shift towards an even more collectively intelligent world means that leaders must transition from a command-and-control mindset to what I call a coordinate-and-cultivate mindset.

When discussing management style, there are two paradoxes to keep in mind:

  • Power: Sometimes the best way to gain power is to give it away. If you try to hoard power and control everything yourself, you may well end up with less control than if you give power freely away to other people.
  • Standards: Sometimes having rigid standards in parts of the system can give you more freedom and flexibility in other parts. The best example of that is the Internet itself. Everyone in the world connected to the internet is using a very rigid, specific set of rules for how they communicate information over it. Those rules are called the internet protocol; you can’t be connected to the system without using those rules. In part, it is precisely because those rules are so rigid and standardized that all the other flexibility and freedom we associate with the Internet is made possible.

This story originally appeared on SAP’s Business Trends.



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