Doctor of Cognitive Psychology and predictive markets specialist Emile Servan-Schreiber answers 7 questions about collective intelligence and its potential applications.

What does collective intelligence mean to you?

Collective intelligence is when a group of people share the same basic and constructive aim – being more intelligent as a network of brains as opposed to just one – and then work together to achieve it. By doing so, they create a new kind of intelligence that is different, more powerful, and the group becomes more intelligent than its most intelligent members.

What was it that convinced you of the existence of such a sophisticated form of collective intelligence?

You can distinctly see collective intelligence at work when you observe animals. In place of too basic an example, how about we take the case of the termite: alone it is unable to think of much at all, but when a large number of termites come together, they are capable of designing cathedrals. Now let us turn to our own brain. We see that a single neurone has very limited capabilities and the brain’s immense power is in fact the result of a large number of neurones connected together. Consequently, human intelligence is, by its very nature, all down to networking.  And finally, there are all the recent studies that are now able to measure group intelligence precisely and accurately. Ultimately, however, we mustn’t compare traditional intelligence and collective intelligence with one another. Really, whether we are talking about networks of individuals, data or neurones, all intelligence is collective.

What is it that makes a group intelligent? Because not every one is…

This is undoubtedly true, which is why it’s crucial that you satisfy these four conditions if you want to form an intelligent group:

  • Real diversity of opinion, putting cognitive models to work. Uniform thinking is the enemy of intelligence.
  • Effective decentralisation of participants giving every member of the group the chance to engage with a variety of complementary realities.
  • Scope for independent, unimpeded and unobstructed expression. Social or hierarchical pressure is naturally conducive to conformism, but this is something we have to systematically overcome to ensure each person is able to express their different opinion.
  • A completely objective synthesis method.

Just grouping individuals together or asking them questions isn’t enough if you want to create true collective intelligence…Just combining intelligent individuals won’t do either! More than anything else, a group’s intelligence is determined by its ability to listen, the flexibility of relationships between its members and their compassion for one another. Individual member intelligence often has very little to do with anything. In a shorthand and slightly paradoxical sense, you could say that the group’s IQ (intelligence quotient) is actually the product of the EQ (emotional quotient) of its individual members.

“we mustn’t compare traditional intelligence and collective intelligence with one another. Really, whether we are talking about networks of individuals, data or neurones, all intelligence is collective. 

How are advances in collective intelligence within the corporate sphere showing themselves even today?

We could begin right away by citing the examples of two of some of the most well-known and ubiquitous companies in our daily lives, Wikipedia and Google…which also happen to represent two excellent cases-in-point when it comes to showing just what collective intelligence can produce. Wikipedia’s collective intelligence is on the past (what we already know), which it amasses by exploiting the diversity of sources and contributions to the fullest, all the while providing a clear collaborative framework. While Google focuses on the present, with its search algorithm whose basis is essentially the informed choices of the millions of web users who are in fact the threads that make up the World Wide Web. On a less global scale – but in a way that is more relevant for businesses – we can use it to foster the development of applications related to R&I and forecasting. By making business more intelligent, we are actually enabling it to be more innovative, to create better products and services, as well as anticipate the consequences of its strategic decisions…At the same time, collective intelligence is also producing some excellent results when it comes to forecasting new products and markets. Another example is agri-food group Campbell’s. Its new products sales forecasts made a 30% accuracy gain when produced on the basis of the collective intelligence of few hundred company employees as opposed to the calculations of the usual handful of experts. Without doubt, collective intelligence is even more effective where the products or markets in question are new or unfamiliar. In situations where we already have a significant volume of accurate case-records and data, traditional analysis patterns regain their utility.

What is driving the advances in collective intelligence within the corporate sphere today?

The generational shift at work is certainly a key major factor. Huge numbers of women and men who grew up with the internet, with its social networks, search engines and comparison sites are joining organisations and even taking up management positions within them. Their background means that constantly being asked their opinion about absolutely everything is totally normal for them. As a result, companies have to adapt to this new status quo, and not simply so that they can attract the skills they need.

What can be done in the future to advance collective intelligence?

Nowadays, group intelligence gains go hand in hand with advances in what we call “artificial” intelligence, which is built around Big Data. However, while the latter is only useful when you have a bank of historical data, the former is the only type that can evolve in uncertain, virgin and underexplored landscapes that are difficult to forecast and anticipate. We are therefore beginning to see the eventual emergence of a sort of hybrid intelligence that combines the best of data with the best of human ability. In a way, this is another form of collective intelligence that gives those who know how to use them in conjunction the power to control both secure positions and uncertain situations, and manage development-phase as well as mature projects.

And finally, do you have any specific training programme in mind for current HR departments?

If the aim is to make companies collectively more intelligent…then of course recruitment will undeniably play an important role, too! Instead of recruiting people who are individually very intelligent, perhaps companies ought to be hiring individuals whose presence raises the intelligence of the group through the difference they bring or their capacity to make communication within the organisation run more smoothly. Because, after all, it’s the entire paradigm that is shifting here…

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