.
W

hat a difference a year makes. A survey in April showed that almost 40% of people in the EU had switched to remote work, while estimates in the U.S. range from 30-50%. The video conference has become a staple of our daily working lives in a way that would have been inconceivable 12 months ago, while virtual collaboration tools have become ubiquitous.  

Given the straightened economic climate, it is unsurprising that many businesses see the situation as an opportunity to permanently reduce their cost base. Facebook, for example, has announced that it expects half of its global workforce to work remotely within the next five to ten years, with Twitter, Barclays and Mondelez International making similar moves. On a purely financial level, this seems like a win-win for everyone concerned: employers can save on the capital and operational costs of providing office space, while employees can save the time and money that it would have cost to commute.

However, if we want to move beyond mere economic survival towards recovery and growth, we need to be more ambitious in our thinking. Rather than merely cutting costs, we now have the chance to drive greater innovation and productivity by building more flexible, remote teams. In addition to the cost and time savings associated with remote work, companies now have an opportunity to shift the focus of their recruitment to new geographic areas and hire talented new employees without the need for them to physically relocate. In this way, they can form purpose-built teams to solve specific tasks over a defined time period.

What’s the Problem with Specialists?

Since the industrial revolution, the workforce in Western economies has become highly specialized. There seems to be an intuitive logic to the notion that to achieve excellence, you should minimize external distractions and focus on doing one thing well. This has led to a workforce of specialists for very narrow tasks. However, individuals can be highly adaptable, using their intelligence and creativity to take on a much broader variety of challenges.

If we reflect on some of the greatest and most transformational thinkers of the past—people like Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo—many of them were polymaths who applied their creativity in a transdisciplinary way. Today these renaissance geniuses might never reach their full potential, as social expectations and economic incentives would drive them to specialize and excel in a narrow subdiscipline rather than applying their talents more broadly.

Collective Intelligence Is More than the Sum of its Parts.

Recent research has revealed something truly fascinating: intelligence is not just limited to individuals, it also applies to groups. A single statistical factor called collective intelligence can be used to predict the performance of groups collaborating on a wide variety of tasks. And contrary to what you might expect, the collective intelligence of a group cannot simply be calculated by adding up the individual intelligence of each member. In fact, the correlation between the collective intelligence of a group and the aggregate of the individual intelligence of its members has been shown to be relatively weak. This is quite exciting as it means that given the right collaboration tools, teams can perform better than the sum of their parts, revealing insights that would have been otherwise impossible to obtain.

Traditionally, we tend to think of teamwork as something that happens face-to-face in closely knit groups. However, the success of projects like Wikipedia, where the most extensive encyclopedia in the world has been assembled by a massive volunteer workforce of remotely networked groups, shows that well-designed collaboration tools can produce impressive results in the absence of face-to-face contact. On the other hand, teams that regularly work together tend to develop shortcuts or habitual routines that bias how they exchange information and collaborate. So, although it might seem somewhat counterintuitive, on certain, specific tasks, remote ad hoc groups may outperform teams who work together every day.

Building Genuine Social Networks.

So, what does this all mean for organizations struggling to come to terms with the new normal? First, it is important to consider the factors that motivate people to participate effectively in teams. In addition to money, team members are motivated by many other factors such as the intrinsic enjoyment of an activity, contributing to a worthwhile cause, socializing with interesting people, or receiving recognition from peers. Thus, a great collaboration tool should be a genuine social network, one that focuses on teasing out and celebrating brilliant ideas rather than selfies and self-aggrandizement.    

The exact mechanics of collaboration will likely depend on the type of insights you are seeking to obtain. Companies like Google and Microsoft, for example, have used prediction markets to enable employees from all divisions to bet on the likelihood of future events such as the completion date for a product. By participating in such markets, employees can earn real financial rewards. In this way, a company can tap into the collective intelligence of their organization while overriding the social barriers that may be preventing managers from gaining an accurate picture of how a project is progressing.

When closer collaboration between team members is required, however, a transparent decision-making mechanism is essential. While binary differences in opinion may need to be settled by a simple vote or a decision by the team leader, more nuanced disagreements might be better resolved through iterative feedback and discursive debate. In the latter case, it is important to recognize that sometimes the quietest person in the room has the most interesting things to say. In both offline and online groups, it has been demonstrated that if a few people dominate the conversation, the collective intelligence of the group will decrease. Conversely, team members who are able to detect and understand subtle interpersonal cues enhance collective intelligence, while teams with greater gender balance also tend to perform better.

Since the onset of the COVID0-19 shock and the ensuing global lockdown, businesses both small and large have had to adjust rapidly. The “sink or swim” imperative to continue operating in such difficult and unusual circumstances has undoubtedly accelerated the digitization of our economies. But the question is: what type of digitization do we want to embrace? Rather than recreating business as usual in the virtual world, we should reimagine how we collaborate in order to foster collective intelligence and drive innovation.

About
Chris Zollinger
:
Chris Zollinger is Founder and Managing Partner of Mindfire. He is an adventurer, content architect, and holds a Master’s degree in Law.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

COVID-19 Is Reshaping Collective Intelligence

Photo by Natalie Pedigo via Unsplash.

November 3, 2020

COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated digitization, but what do we want to do with this new-found flexibility? Rather than merely focusing on reducing costs, we should take this opportunity to harness and extend the power of collective intelligence.

W

hat a difference a year makes. A survey in April showed that almost 40% of people in the EU had switched to remote work, while estimates in the U.S. range from 30-50%. The video conference has become a staple of our daily working lives in a way that would have been inconceivable 12 months ago, while virtual collaboration tools have become ubiquitous.  

Given the straightened economic climate, it is unsurprising that many businesses see the situation as an opportunity to permanently reduce their cost base. Facebook, for example, has announced that it expects half of its global workforce to work remotely within the next five to ten years, with Twitter, Barclays and Mondelez International making similar moves. On a purely financial level, this seems like a win-win for everyone concerned: employers can save on the capital and operational costs of providing office space, while employees can save the time and money that it would have cost to commute.

However, if we want to move beyond mere economic survival towards recovery and growth, we need to be more ambitious in our thinking. Rather than merely cutting costs, we now have the chance to drive greater innovation and productivity by building more flexible, remote teams. In addition to the cost and time savings associated with remote work, companies now have an opportunity to shift the focus of their recruitment to new geographic areas and hire talented new employees without the need for them to physically relocate. In this way, they can form purpose-built teams to solve specific tasks over a defined time period.

What’s the Problem with Specialists?

Since the industrial revolution, the workforce in Western economies has become highly specialized. There seems to be an intuitive logic to the notion that to achieve excellence, you should minimize external distractions and focus on doing one thing well. This has led to a workforce of specialists for very narrow tasks. However, individuals can be highly adaptable, using their intelligence and creativity to take on a much broader variety of challenges.

If we reflect on some of the greatest and most transformational thinkers of the past—people like Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo—many of them were polymaths who applied their creativity in a transdisciplinary way. Today these renaissance geniuses might never reach their full potential, as social expectations and economic incentives would drive them to specialize and excel in a narrow subdiscipline rather than applying their talents more broadly.

Collective Intelligence Is More than the Sum of its Parts.

Recent research has revealed something truly fascinating: intelligence is not just limited to individuals, it also applies to groups. A single statistical factor called collective intelligence can be used to predict the performance of groups collaborating on a wide variety of tasks. And contrary to what you might expect, the collective intelligence of a group cannot simply be calculated by adding up the individual intelligence of each member. In fact, the correlation between the collective intelligence of a group and the aggregate of the individual intelligence of its members has been shown to be relatively weak. This is quite exciting as it means that given the right collaboration tools, teams can perform better than the sum of their parts, revealing insights that would have been otherwise impossible to obtain.

Traditionally, we tend to think of teamwork as something that happens face-to-face in closely knit groups. However, the success of projects like Wikipedia, where the most extensive encyclopedia in the world has been assembled by a massive volunteer workforce of remotely networked groups, shows that well-designed collaboration tools can produce impressive results in the absence of face-to-face contact. On the other hand, teams that regularly work together tend to develop shortcuts or habitual routines that bias how they exchange information and collaborate. So, although it might seem somewhat counterintuitive, on certain, specific tasks, remote ad hoc groups may outperform teams who work together every day.

Building Genuine Social Networks.

So, what does this all mean for organizations struggling to come to terms with the new normal? First, it is important to consider the factors that motivate people to participate effectively in teams. In addition to money, team members are motivated by many other factors such as the intrinsic enjoyment of an activity, contributing to a worthwhile cause, socializing with interesting people, or receiving recognition from peers. Thus, a great collaboration tool should be a genuine social network, one that focuses on teasing out and celebrating brilliant ideas rather than selfies and self-aggrandizement.    

The exact mechanics of collaboration will likely depend on the type of insights you are seeking to obtain. Companies like Google and Microsoft, for example, have used prediction markets to enable employees from all divisions to bet on the likelihood of future events such as the completion date for a product. By participating in such markets, employees can earn real financial rewards. In this way, a company can tap into the collective intelligence of their organization while overriding the social barriers that may be preventing managers from gaining an accurate picture of how a project is progressing.

When closer collaboration between team members is required, however, a transparent decision-making mechanism is essential. While binary differences in opinion may need to be settled by a simple vote or a decision by the team leader, more nuanced disagreements might be better resolved through iterative feedback and discursive debate. In the latter case, it is important to recognize that sometimes the quietest person in the room has the most interesting things to say. In both offline and online groups, it has been demonstrated that if a few people dominate the conversation, the collective intelligence of the group will decrease. Conversely, team members who are able to detect and understand subtle interpersonal cues enhance collective intelligence, while teams with greater gender balance also tend to perform better.

Since the onset of the COVID0-19 shock and the ensuing global lockdown, businesses both small and large have had to adjust rapidly. The “sink or swim” imperative to continue operating in such difficult and unusual circumstances has undoubtedly accelerated the digitization of our economies. But the question is: what type of digitization do we want to embrace? Rather than recreating business as usual in the virtual world, we should reimagine how we collaborate in order to foster collective intelligence and drive innovation.

About
Chris Zollinger
:
Chris Zollinger is Founder and Managing Partner of Mindfire. He is an adventurer, content architect, and holds a Master’s degree in Law.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.