Collective Intelligence

Collective Intelligence


1. What is collective intelligence?

If we look at nature, we can see many phenomena of so-called collective intelligence, forged in the course of evolution: ants, termites, schools of fish, swarms of starlings... or even bees; indeed, the biologist Thomas D. Seeley writes the following about them: "A colony of bees is much more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole: "A bee colony is more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole".

We humans are social animals and our lives are usually lived in collectives: families, communities, associations, companies, nations, etc. Collective intelligence has therefore existed since the dawn of time!

Thus we find ourselves in organisations which can take several forms: paternalistic, pyramidal, in silos, etc. The reality of our VUCA world today highlights the limits of certain types of organisations, and we can observe :

  • lack of collaboration and cooperation ;
  • lack of agility, creativity and innovation;
  • lack of motivation and engagement of employees.

P. Senge, author of the book "The 5th Discipline" in which he presents the concept of the "learning organisation" says: "I believe that the prevailing management system is, by nature, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work ever harder to compensate for its inability to awaken the collective spirit and intelligence that characterises the best of working together.”

These elements are therefore major obstacles to performance and do not allow us to respond to current challenges.

One of the ways to remedy this and to achieve the organisation's project is to trust the collective to adapt and innovate continuously. P. Senge evokes the subjects of complexity, systemic, work on one's own mental representations and reflective conversations to enable organisations to become more learning and to switch to a model that favours their collective intelligence.

Some definitions:

  • "Collective intelligence is a form of intelligence that is universally distributed, constantly reinforced, coordinated in real-time and results in the efficient mobilisation of skills. Let's add to our definition this indispensable accompaniment: the foundation and goal of collective intelligence are the mutual recognition and enrichment of people" - Pierre Lévy.
  • "It is a collective that sets itself in motion; it chooses what it is making, achieving or imagining. It is self-organisation between peers that creates an emergence" - Olivier Piazza.

2. The pillars of collective intelligence

The collective intelligence approach is an open space that requires a structure, "rules of the game" that define the expected behaviours: those that favour mutual respect, co-responsibility and autonomy of each member of the group. The definition of a common framework is therefore an essential step in working in collective intelligence.

Moreover, collective intelligence cannot be decreed, it is co-constructed and learned in daily practice. It is therefore not enough for a group to work together for there to be collective intelligence... The challenge in this approach is to create favourable conditions, here are 5 essential pillars according to Olivier Piazza.

2.1 A complex adaptive system

The collective is a peer-to-peer system with a bottom-up movement and an emergence mechanism. There is no hierarchy in the sense that the members of the organisation do not have a predefined static rank. They are peers and have the capacity to adopt different statuses according to the needs of the system. Power and authority are distributed horizontally in a way that is most useful for fostering lateral coordination, and there is continuous feedback.

"The emergence of collective intelligence is intrinsically a process of self-organisation" Francis Heylighen.

2.2 Self-determination theory

The collective supports 3 basic needs for living well, acting effectively and developing well-being. It develops the following 3 elements:

  • SELF-DETERMINATION: the collective allows people to choose their own actions, promoting a clear understanding of the meaning of the requests made, and allowing each person to find a match with their own goals and values.
  • AFFILIATION: the collective generates quality interpersonal relationships based on listening, respect and trust.
  • COMPETENCE: the collective has the capacity to set know-how in motion, it mobilises talents.

When these 3 needs are nourished, it allows for the development of "pro-social" behaviours between the members of the group, such as help and solidarity.

2.3 Dialogue

The collective creates an open, respectful, accessible space where parity prevails. A safe space where everyone can contribute, exchange and take risks: The right to make mistakes and psychological safety.

"We can only generate higher levels of intelligence among ourselves if we practice high-quality conversations with each other." Tom Atlee

2.4 The Commons

The commons are the culture and modes of action of the collective:

  • Members know who is and is not part of the collective
  • There are common resources
  • The collective has defined social protocols (rules of life or functioning, even alliances)

"A common is a resource + a community + a set of social protocols.  The three form an integrated and interdependent whole."

2.5 Self-defence

The collective 'protect itself’, it is vigilant to all the habits that might arise and which would be opposed to the collective intelligence. The collective is the guarantor of the safe space.

3. Benefits, obstacles and some examples.

Collective intelligence helps to obtain better results, to gain efficiency, to solve problems, to develop creativity, bring about innovations and contribute to professional fulfilment. It also makes it possible to mutualise resources, to be more efficient even at a distance, and to better coordinate and deploy.

On the other hand, the practice of collective intelligence is far from being a long quiet river. One must expect chaos, progress, setbacks, questioning, and even rejection. This is because, in a collective intelligence approach, everyone is invited to adopt the facilitator's posture for the benefit of a dynamic that concerns the common good more than the satisfaction of egos.

There must be a powerful 'purpose', which allows ego problems to be put aside and which awakens in each person the desire to give the best of themselves to achieve a common goal. If egos are too present and managers and/or members of the group are unable to trust each other, collective intelligence will never develop.

As a leader or manager, one must have the audacity to hand over the power of reflection and elaboration to the group. It is the one who has the competence in the field who shares his knowledge, the manager is no longer the all-knowing but the guardian of the framework and the facilitator of collective intelligence, he relies on these collaborators for collective success.

Some examples of the implementation of collective intelligence:

  • The multilingual online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, in which authors, readers and editors exchange their roles in the service of knowledge dissemination.
  • The French subsidiary of W. L. Gore (Gore Tex) is 3rd in the Great Place to Work ranking, and it works on three fundamental elements for them: motivation, skills, and meeting the needs of the company.
  • The NASA Clickworkers experiment which allowed users to view photos of Mars to help classify the different types of craters, with the averaged results of the 2.5 million clicks providing a quality comparable to the assessments of an expert Mars geologist.
  • The citizen's climate convention in France: an unprecedented democratic experiment, which aimed to give a voice to 150 randomly selected citizens to accelerate the fight against climate change.

If necessary, you can also be accompanied by external/independent facilitators in the first instance to implement collective intelligence, and/or to train you in methods, tools and postures.