Sunday, August 10, 2008

Collaboration - The power of group intelligence

"When we are dreaming alone it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality." (Dom Helder Camara)

I have been thinking about collaboration and its relevance to work, life, learning... I know collaboration is important. I know groups have power to do more than individuals. But I really got to realize the importance of 'group intelligence' when I read this article by Peter Miller called Swarm Theory in
National Geographic.

It is amazing how we can draw parallels from the insect and animal kingdom into our own work life. It is a rather long article, but some interesting points made are:-

--"If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you'll be impressed by how inept it is," says Deborah M. Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University. "Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are."

--"When it comes to swarm intelligence, ants aren't the only insects with something useful to teach us. On a small, breezy island off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what's best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives. "

--"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

--Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it's really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don't see how.

Nature already has everything that we want to learn! While we are trying to come up with new models and methods of learning, thinking, brainstorming, communicating etc the insects and the animals are way ahead of us in these areas.
There is no denying the value of group intelligence. The challenge is how to collaborate and get to this level? Well…people may say that we can crack the 'how-to' by leveraging tools and technologies - web 2.0 and beyond. But I don't think this is about tools and technologies.

To be able to collaborate, we need to have a shared goal - an objective that everyone in the group believes in. And then, each of us in the group needs to do our part. We may not be able to see the big picture all the time but by collaborating and sharing information, we can achieve our goals. While no one is incharge - everyone is. It is shared responsibility and therefore each of us is responsible. When I reflect more on this phenomenon, I realize that one great leader can't lead to an 'intelligent' group - but each member of the group can.


  1. Taruna, I really appreciate this thinking on collective intelligence and collaboration in massive environments. I wonder if we do need a shared goal though for there to get to a higher order of sensemaking from the group. Perhaps we need better ways to bring the collective thoughts into formats that allow individuals to come to some understanding and through that share the varied ways in which understanding being shaped across the collective. In this way there can still be use of collective knowledge and sense, but not necessarily through a singular unified goal.

    1. Thanks for your comment on this post Felicia. I appreciate your point of view. I think in all areas of our life, learning included, humans have made progress only when there was a shared goal. Individually, we all can achieve our goals but changing education and learning needs a much more collective effort. A shared goal in that sense connects us all together and provides the platform to bring in the collective thoughts. If there is no single common reason to come together - it may be difficult for many to continue. Therefore, to me, a shared goal creates more meaning and significance though it may not be the only goal that each of us works towards.