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ILP Institute Insider

November 14, 2016

Harnessing the Power of Collective Intelligence

Thomas Malone's research is focused on how people and computers can be connected so that they act more intelligently than any person, group, or computer ever has before.

Alice McCarthy

As a long-time faculty member at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Thomas Malone, PhD knows a lot of very smart people. But he also knows that intelligence can be more than something found inside individual brains. For years he has been studying the intelligence of groups. And as founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI), he focuses on the nuanced science of collective intelligence - groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. “Companies, countries, armies, families all act together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent,” Malone explains, particularly when employing technology tools to improve interactions and communication. Malone’s mission and that of the CCI is to help organizations identify and take advantage of opportunities for improving collective intelligence in the coming decades.

At the heart of nearly every CCI core research question is the question, ‘How can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before?’

Thomas Malone
Patrick J McGovern (1959)
Professor of Management
Founding Director,

Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI)

Measuring Group Intelligence
What makes some teams smarter than others? Malone and colleagues have spent years measuring in a quantitative way the intelligence of groups using many of the same statistical techniques used to assess individual intelligence. “We’ve found that there is a single statistical factor for a group that will predict how well that group will perform on a very wide range of very different tasks,” he says. “We call that factor ‘collective intelligence’ and have developed a test a group can take to measure that factor.”

It turns out that a group’s collective intelligence is only moderately linked with the average individual intelligence of the people in the group. More significant factors include high levels of social perceptiveness of the people in the group, equal group member participation, and a higher number of women in the group. Malone believes that this last factor about gender is largely related to social perceptiviteness. “Women on average score higher on social perceptiveness than men,” he adds, “But what you need for a group to be collectively intelligent may be just having enough people in the group who are relatively high on the measure of social perceptiveness.”

Studies comparing face to face groups with online-only groups show that groups with the highest social IQ are more intelligent – regardless of their ability to see or speak with each other. “I think that means that this measure of social perceptiveness must actually be measuring a much broader range of interpersonal skills which is social intelligence. It is a measure of people’s abilities to work effectively with others,” Malone says.

Malone is eager to share the implications of this work to help create smarter teams and smarter organizations. “It may help define what combinations of people and skills work together best and it may also be a way of predicting how well a group will do, like a sales team, top management team or board of directors,” he says. And he believes implementing a collective intelligence measurement may help organizations and managers evaluate many different ways of using computer based collaboration tools designed to foster group work.

Climate CoLab
At the CCI, Malone and colleagues are attempting to apply the science of collective intelligence to the problem of global climate change. The goal of the Climate CoLab project is to harness collective intelligence and apply it to the problem of global climate change. Through an online platform, a worldwide community of community of over 75,000 people including experts on the science and policy of climate change as well as students, business people, and policy makers is taking on the enormous problems of addressing global climate change. Together they are developing and evaluating proposals for what to do about different aspects of the climate change problem from how to generate electricity with fewer emissions to adapting to sea level rise to how to change public attitudes about climate.

Much of the activity of the Climate CoLab project is organized in a series of contests; a couple dozen have been completed in the last couple of years. Winners present their ideas at the Climate CoLab annual conference at MIT and are eligible for a grand prize and a variety of other ways of promoting these ideas and helping them move further toward implementation.

Boosting Efficiency and Productivity with Intelligence
“We are very interested in talking to companies about ways that collective intelligence – as exemplified in the Climate CoLab project—might be used for different kinds of corporate problems, ways of enlisting much more brain power than would ordinarily be brought to bear on these problems to come up with hopefully better answers,” Malone explains. Possibilities include strategic planning and product development. And Malone is collaborating with the MIT Solve organization to use the Climate CoLab platform and approach for a number of other societal problems involving healthcare, education, and manufacturing.

“It is possible to use these new approaches to make companies not only more efficient and productive but also make them more intelligent than they’ve ever been before.” He also thinks it’s possible to do the same thing for governments and societies more broadly.

Through the CCI, Malone routinely works with companies and government agencies to help organize their teams in better ways. And they are offering remote online consultation for any organization or individual through the Intelligent Organizations 4Dx (live online) course. Says Malone, “I think we are at an historical transition point, a point where new information technologies are making it possible to organize the combination of human and machine activity in ways that were never possible before.”