March 2020. On my agenda for today: hosting a workshop on collective intelligence. While I get ready to go to work I turn on the radio. The latest news isn’t great, Trump just decided to close the US borders. On my way to Paris’ business district, I remember a famous quote by Martin Luther King: “We must live as brothers or we will die together like idiots.” I decide to use his words in my workshop. Because while Martin Luther King used them during the civil rights movement, they are still relevant and even more so in collective intelligence.
In today’s article, I’ll give a definition of collective intelligence, explain why it responds to several profound human needs, and why it’s an important skill in this day and age.
What is collective intelligence?
In the words of Martin Luther King, I will give the following definition: “Living together as brothers and in intelligence”. The philosopher Pierre Lévy describes collective intelligence (CI) as “intelligence that is distributed everywhere, constantly valued, coordinated in real-time, leading to an effective mobilization of skills”. There are several important terms that need to be unpacked:
- Everywhere – Collective intelligence is not reserved for a certain part of the population (e.g. decision-makers or a particular department). It is found at all levels of the company. It can also be implemented at home.
- Valuation – It must be emphasized and put forward.
- Real-time – CI is something we experience in the present.
- Mobilization of skills – Intelligence calls on the talents of each individual.
Other words that could easily be added to further clarify this definition are: caring, listening, learning, creativity, surpassing oneself, team spirit.
The biggest advantage of a collective intelligence approach lies in the creation of value. In mathematical terms, collective intelligence is 1+1=3. What emerges from collective intelligence is far superior to the knowledge of a single person. In the context of business transformation, CI is a real challenge for organizations.
The concept of collective intelligence is not new
Collective intelligence is not new but has been present since the beginning of time. For example, I grew up in the Netherlands with the “Polder model”. The Polder Model emphasizes the ability to put aside one’s differences and combine one’s skills pragmatically towards a common goal.
In the Netherlands, 25% of the country is below sea level and 96% of the country is flat. Meaning, for the Dutch, the fight against water is always a concern that forces Dutch citizens to work together for the good of all. There even is a Ministry of Water and Infrastructure!
At my level, I started to actively study the ‘Polder Model’ during the Dutch language courses I took at University. My teacher skillfully included everyone in the group regardless of our backgrounds. The only language spoken was Dutch. I had a lot of respect for her work. I saw a collaborative mindset at work which yielded great progress. This is why I am convinced of the value and power of collective intelligence for a long time. I’m sure I am not the only one. Many of you have had one or more experiences of watching CI in action.
Depending on your cultural, corporate, and personal ecosystem, benefiting from collective intelligence requires a varying amount of effort. After all, new technologies have changed the way we obtain information. Information is easily accessed using smartphones where one can easily access the ideas of millions of people (articles, blogs, tutorials, etc.) with a simple touch of a button.
Gone are the days when we had to seek advice or help from a particular person for a burning question or run to the library. That said, while we now have unlimited access to knowledge, we have to win back “the collective”. This is a challenge that requires effort. Nevertheless, collective intelligence is a must-have skill today because it fulfills deep needs.
Collective intelligence responds to profound human needs
Whenever I host or participate in collective intelligence sessions, there are certain elements of these workshops I thoroughly enjoy. Think of aspects such as listening, connection, and empathy but also things like making suggestions and improvements. In my opinion, this aligns well with several human needs captured in the work of renowned American coach and bestselling author Tony Robbins. Robbins distinguishes six fundamental needs that can be met by CI:
Certainty: We all need security, whether in relation to an environment or people. CI offers a framework that can be used to solve problems. It offers starting points, timelines, etc.
Variety: Certainty and uncertainty go hand in hand. If everything was set in stone, we would fall into boredom. You need enough variety to keep people vital. Collective intelligence awakens curiosity because it can be applied to many different subjects and calls upon all the skills of the participants. These skills can be in their job description or not. This is where things become interesting.
Purpose: What are you doing? Where are you going? The quest for purpose is increasingly present in our societies and by extension, in employees and job candidates. We are searching for our raison d’être. Shaping a company’s raison d’être is an exercise in CI. It requires dialogue.
Connection: We are social beings. We need to feel a connection and that is what CI offers through group work.
Growth: Physical growth stops in early adolescence but mentally, our growth continues. Continuous improvement is one of the most fulfilling things. Collective Intelligence can be a useful skill in moving forward and overcoming obstacles.
Contribution: Tony Robbins calls the need to make our contribution to the world, one of the greatest needs. Collective intelligence responds to this need by allowing us to collaborate on key issues e.g. the health crisis of 2020.
In a nutshell
Collective intelligence makes it possible to mobilize skills. It allows us to work on shared collective projects and to nourish human relationships by allowing all participants to express themselves while being in a performance perspective. In a world that is pretty shaken up right now, this is something we could all benefit from.
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