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December 10, 2012
Collective Intelligence...or Collective Stupidity?
Collective intelligence has been around for a long time — and in many different forms. For example, people from all over the world collectively created Wikipedia and Linux, high-quality intellectual products.

But what makes for the best, the most trusted collective intelligence? Is it a lot of smart people, or perhaps more creative folk? It’s a highly significant question, because it speaks to the formation of teams and groups for gaining the most business impact.

In a fascinating article, Thomas Malone, Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, answers that question. And his answer is more than a little surprising. Initially, the Center staff looked at individual smarts, then things like the psychological safety of the group, the personality of the group members, and other typically relevant factors. Malone said that most of the things that they thought might affect performance turned out not to have any significant effect. But they found that there were three factors that were “significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of the group.”
  • Social perceptiveness of the group members. Typically, social perceptiveness refers to an awareness of others’ behaviors and an understanding of why they act the way they’re acting. Social perceptiveness is a form of interpersonal intelligence, a.k.a. emotional intelligence. The more socially perceptive are not only aware and understanding, but they also know how to deal with negative responses and how to leverage the positive actions of others. Malone’s team measured social perceptiveness through the use of a test, the “Reading the Mind and the Eyes Test,” which was developed essentially to measure autism. People who are good at that work well in groups. When you have a group with a bunch of people like that, the group as a whole is more intelligent.
  • Evenness of conversational turn taking. Turn-taking is rarely talked about directly in business settings unless there’s an experienced facilitator available. Turn-taking is often thought of as even or nearly equal “air-time” for each member in a team meeting. But more than being a quantitative issue, it’s also a qualitative issue. In the best situations, turn-taking implies substantive contributions from each member of the group. Malone’s research found that evenness of conversational turn-taking correlated with more intelligent groups and group decision making. And, conversely, groups where one person dominated the conversation were, on average, less intelligent than groups with evenly distributed turn-taking.
  • Percentage of women in the group. Malone writes that the most surprising correlation was that the more women in the group, the more intelligent the group. This last result is not just a diversity result. It’s not just saying that you need groups with some men and some women. It looks like it’s a more or less linear trend. That is, more women are better all the way up to all women. It’s well-known that on average women are more socially perceptive than men. Obviously, this research adds still more to that research: put together a team of experts, including a significant percentage of women, and you’ll get more and better collective intelligence.
This is not to say any woman — or man — off the street impacts team intelligence. This assumes that the people you put in a group have some expertise in the area related to the needed decisions. As Malone indicated, he defines group intelligence the same way individual intelligence is defined: somebody who’s good at a lot of mental things, somebody who is good at learning quickly, at adapting to new situations, at doing a bunch of things. One thing is for certain: this information ought to make managers and leaders think seriously about more women in business, and think more seriously still about the formation of teams and groups for strategic business matters.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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