Toward a more functional definition of Collective Intelligence

Collective Intelligence-2Collective Intelligence (CI) generates increasing interest as an emerging discipline, but it seems difficult to find a clear and intuitive definition of what it means. It is tried to partly alleviate that deficit by adopting the terminology used by the MIT Center of Collective Intelligence but in my opinion the CCI intends to encompass so many scopes that lead to us to a definition very little operative.

For example, Thomas Malone and his team often use this definition of CI: “Groups of Individuals acting collectively in ways that seems intelligent“. Quite frankly, I do not know if this clarifies anything or adds more confusion for people like me who are looking to put theory into action.

The ontological advances in the field of CI either do not seem to give great results. We do not have a conceptual framework that serves to agree on the narrative. The universe of disciplines that converges here is broad, and knowledge is very fragmented. The diversity is good, but there is an excess of cognitive dispersion that does not help to achieve consistent progress. In fact, I know that is difficult to categorize the issues or to have a taxonomy that contributes order when we want to accede to research results. So it seems necessary to review and to simplify the narrative we use to reach more people. Therefore I’ll try to explain what I mean by Collective Intelligence as intuitive as possible, although I do not know if I will be able to 🙁

At individual level, if we rely on the etymology, “intelligence” means “to know how to choose”. Someone seems to be more intelligent to the extent that he or she choose the options that better meet their expectations and their overall well-being like individual. Simply put: who take the best decisions seem to be the smartest ones. Perhaps this is to simplify much because there are many more functions in those the intelligence takes part (to solve problems, to learn, to adapt, to reason, to predict, to imagine, etc..), but I intuit that the ability to “know how to choose“, that is to say, to make good decisions, is the one that better summarizes what means to be intelligent.

The groups also express a certain degree of intelligence. On a collective scale, a way to test that capability is studying how groups decide, or with what quality they solve problems that are vital for their well-being and survival.

For me it is sufficient that a group of individuals makes things together so that some degree of “collective intelligence” is revealed. So the “collective intelligence” exists in any group that works as a group, like it or not. Another thing is that the results of that behavior reflect more or less intelligence, more or less stupidity. The combined effectiveness does not have to be necessarily better than the one of the individuals separately, and often it is not it.

So what we tried to find out it is what must happen in the process of interaction among individuals (how they must connect among them) so that it improves the collective outcome, because it appears that there is still a huge untapped potential.  What I mean is that any group acts with one certain IC and the challenge is indeed to increase it, to improve it.

According to research carried out, the collective outcome does not depend significantly to bring together people with a high coefficient of individual intelligence, but to foster a kind of interaction between them to help to achieve higher order results. So if is true that a group of very shining people can think or act collectively of a stupid way whereas other more ordinary can generate wise solutions, then something singular or specific must happen in the collective interaction that causes that the collective result is relatively independent of the individual intelligence of its members.

Also, there are significant variances in the effectiveness of a group if the participatory or collaborative process is designed and managed in one way or another. That is, putting the same raw material in two different ovens, the result can be very different, so something happens in the oven, in the ‘cooking technology’, so that some bread leave far better that the other. That black box is the one that we must open and decipher, to the extent possible.

I’m still working on an operational definition of “collective intelligence” that satisfies me completely, that helps me to spread and to use the concept in scopes not necessarily academic. But, at the moment, this is the working (and provisional) definition that I propose:

Collective Intelligence: Capacity of a group of individuals to collaboratively optimize the decisions that affect them as a group.

That capacity is expressed, therefore, through a process that is collaborative, and a result that would consist of choosing the best possible options for the expectations and the well-being of the group. The definition I propose also highlights the fact that we talk about decision areas where collective reflection/action improves the isolated individual ones, that is, those fields of intervention where the collective has a real meaning (for example, because there are synergies between the elements of the group) and, as seems necessary to remember, I exclude decision spaces that are strictly individual.

So knowing that any group of individuals manifests a certain degree of collective intelligence (according to its collaborative ability to choose the right things), it remains to discuss the conditions under which that capacity is improved or amplified; which is precisely the focus of this blog and my personal research.

Finally to say that it is possible to apply the concept of Collective Intelligence at four levels: 1) Small groups, 2) Organizations, 3) Communities, 4) Society in general. It is clear that the scaling factor introduces a dynamics and several complexities at each level. In fact, some experts limit the concept of Collective Intelligence only large-scale collective behavior (“Large-scale collaboration”). From certain degree of scaling, Internet turns into the natural channel of aggregation.

Are you satisfied with how we usually define Collective Intelligence? Do you think it is a working definition for practitioners? What would be your best definition? I invite you to join the conversation…

Note: Read this post in Spanish (Lee este post en Español)


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