Collective what?

2010_38668_54042Composing a symphony at the age of 15, or putting forward a new scientific theory are deeds usually associated with privileged brains, minds with a large Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Titanic as they are, these kinds of endeavours are the result of introspection and effort of a single mind. You are on your own while you are inventing the theory of relativity, composing Beethoven’s 5th symphony or proving Riemann’s Hypothesis. But what can we say about the collective IQ of organizations set up to carry out enterprises what a single human being would be absolutely incapable of doing, such as building the pyramids, the large hadron collider, or Windows 8?

Psychologists have shown that a single statistical factor —often called “general intelligence”— emerges from the correlations among people’s performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks. A century ago, British psychologist Charles Spearman observed that individuals who do well on one mental test tend to do well on all of them, no matter how different the tests’ aims, format or content. Spearman reasoned that all tests must therefore tap into some deeper, general ability which he labelled the general factor of intelligence or “g factor“. In essence, g equates to an individual’s ability to deal with cognitive complexity.

The empirical fact of general cognitive ability as first demonstrated by Spearman is now, arguably, the most replicated result in all of psychology. Although still the subject of intense controversy, what makes intelligence tests of substantial practical importance is that intelligence can be measured in an hour or less, and is a reliable predictor of a very wide range of important life outcomes, including grades in school, success in many occupations, and even life expectancy.

If we think that the complexity we face is increasing, understanding the determinants of a group performance should stand high in your agenda. Wouldn’t you like to compare the IQ of different organizations as we compare the IQ of single individuals? Wouldn’t it be great if a short collective intelligence test could predict a sales team’s or a top management team’s long-term effectiveness?

One might expect that after centuries of experience with different types of organizations, like sport teams, companies, armies, administrations and so on, management science should have learnt how to blend the individual skills of a group of people so as to make the most of them. One might fantasize with an organization’s graph modelling the individual IQ at each node, the connections and flows of data, information, knowledge and decisions among the individuals, and a pint of network theory.

However, for all the talk about collective intelligence and many related topics such as the the wisdom of crowds, the global brainswarm intelligenceetc. the truth is that no one has systematically examined whether such kind of “collective intelligence” actually exists for groups of people. Our organizational models are so poor that very often they do not take advantage of individual skills, and frequently foster unproductive competition –instead of collaboration– amongst people in the same organization. Learning how to compose individual IQ’s effectively might bring potentially huge increases in our capability to face ever more challenging tasks.

A recent study co-authored by MIT researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members.

In two tests with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, they find evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. By analogy with individual intelligence, they define a group’s collective intelligence (c) as the general ability of the group to perform a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but it is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

These findings raise interesting questions. As one would expect from practical experience, collective intelligence does not seem to behave linearly in relation to the group’s individual’s intelligence. Therefore, increasing IQ at certain nodes, or simply adding more IQ’s might not have a significant impact on the organization collective intelligence. In fact, it might have a negative impact. On the other hand, raising a group’s collective intelligence should be possible without raising the intelligence of every or even some group’s individuals.

All you need is… well, a better coordination technology!

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Featured Image: Tvrtko Buric, Crowd

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