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What is Collective Intelligence? And how does it apply in the workplace?


Collective intelligence is the process by which a large group of individuals gather and share their knowledge, data and skills for the purpose of solving issues.

This article covers:

Definition of collective intelligence

There are multiple definitiions of collective intelligence. The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) defines collective intelligence as the process by which a large group of individuals gather and share their knowledge, data and skills for the purpose of solving societal issues.

You could also say that collective intelligence is a kind of wisdom and knowledge that grows out of a group. The concept of collective intelligence states that when people work together, they form a type of intelligence that simply cannot exist on the individual level.

Collective intelligence is therefore shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making.

It has been around for a long time, but the rise of new technologies that connect more and more individuals over greater distances to share knowledge and skills has transformed what can be achieved. Collective intelligence is used to help create widely known platforms such as Google and Wikipedia. 

Essentially, in the same way IQ describes individual intelligence, collective intelligence performs the function on a broader scale. It’s also proven to be a dynamic concept, subject to new evolutions spurred on by the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence technologies.

Collective intelligence strongly contributes to the shift of knowledge and power from the individual to the collective. 

History of collective intelligence

The concept (although not so named) originated in 1785 with the Marquis de Condorcet, whose "jury theorem" states that if each member of a voting group is more likely than not to make a correct decision, the probability that the highest vote of the group is the correct decision increases with the number of members of the group.

In a 1962 research report, Douglas Engelbart linked collective intelligence to organisational effectiveness, and predicted that pro-actively 'augmenting human intellect' would yield a multiplier effect in group problem solving. In 1994, he coined the term 'collective IQ' as a measure of collective intelligence, to focus attention on the opportunity to significantly raise collective IQ in business and society.

Pierre Levy’s book Collective Intelligence: mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace, translated by Robert Bononno. He was the first to develop the term “collective intelligence” and describes it as:

A form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills… My initial premise is based on the notion of a universally distributed intelligence. No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity… New communications systems should provide members of a community with the means to coordinate their interactions within the same virtual universe of knowledge. The ideal of collective intelligence implies the technical, economic, legal, and human enhancement of a universally distributed intelligence that will unleash a positive dynamic of recognition and skills mobilization.

Collective intelligence in the workplace

The most important intelligence in the foreseeable is not Artificial Intelligence but, rather, a collective intelligence that includes both people and computers. And this is where there is a major opportunity currently untapped by many organisations.

Organisations can improve productivity and creativity by creating the right conditions to tap into the wealth of information and knowledge about their systems, processes, products and customers.

Leaders that value the experience, knowledge and insight potential gained over many years by employees, seek to harness this collective intelligence and the many business benefits it offers. By doing so, they are giving their employees an important voice in the organisation, a key feature in engaged workforces. 

Principles of collective intelligence

According to theorists Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, collective intelligence is an outcome of group behavior they categorize as mass collaboration that is founded upon four distinct principles: Openness, Peering, Sharing, and Acting Globally.

1. Openness

Simply put, this condition implies that all participants approach their work or a project without thinking “this idea is mine.”

2. Peering

Peering implies that work or projects will be opened up “horizontally” from which people are able to champion ideas and grow a project out in a direction on their own, without the need for approval from a hierarchy. 

3. Sharing

Sharing clarifies the need for intellectual property to be shared with others in the group. It is essential as it allows for the fluid exchange of ideas and critiques.

4. Acting Globally

This principle is founded on the advancement of technology that allow organisations to reach out across their entire network of collaborators and to engage everyone. This concept overcomes barriers like department or borders in an effort to capture and utilise new ideas, new talents, and new markets.

Geoff Mulgan focuses on five organising principles. These principles help a group to think more clearly about the past (the relevant collective memories), present (the facts of what is happening), and future (the options for resolving the situation).  

1. Autonomous commons

Autonomy means allowing arguments to grow and become more refined without being hampered by ego, hierarchy, assumption, or ownership.

2. Balance 

How balanced the intelligence is between its different elements, and how well-suited the balance is to the tasks at hand.

3. Focus

Focus means attending to what really matters and not being distracted.

4. Reflexive

Knowledge needs knowledge about the knowledge - the more reflexive any group is, the more intelligent it is in the long run.

5. Integrate for action

Drawing on different types of data and ways of thinking to make a decision.


Ways to boost collective intelligence

1. Value opinions and feedback 

Give employees a voice and make their suggestions, opinions and feedback matter.  

2 Provide every opportunity to contribute

Truly committing to collective intelligence is more than a suggestion box. Your employees need to be able to have access to relevant information and provide their suggestions whenever and wherever they be. 

3 Encourage constructive conflict

Communicate the value of constructive conflict so that the best decisions are made on full information.  


Benefits of collective intelligence

1. Collective intelligence makes your team smarter

Theorists of collective intelligence believe that when different minds come together, a new level of understanding emerges. If a team is working together on a presentation that want to wow a new client, then each person on the team will bring something known as general individual intelligence but together, it will create something called a general collective intelligence factor. This enables a much higher level of work and the group will be smarter than any one member on their own.

2. Collective intelligence improves creativity and create new markets

Ideas and options will be more innovative and successful if they are derived from collaboration and with many different people involved, it improves the group intelligence. Collective Intelligence might also help generate new markets for products as part of a collective intelligence gathering operation.

3. Collective intelligence improves productivity

Employees who feel they have a voice that is actually heard in their organisation can improve productivity by making employees feel responsible for their own environment. It’s proven that people perform better when they are able to make decisions on their working condition due to flexibility and the ability to adapt to their situation.

4. Collective intelligence improves coordination

It allows workers to find new, more efficient ways of getting things done. In turn, this reduces the need for supervision, which saves managers time and allows them to concentrate on other things, whilst also cutting transaction costs.

5. Reduce costs

A company can make a better product, in less time, by releasing a free or open source version of that product to public. A large group of skilled minds working on the problem can fix a product more quickly, and at a much lower cost than if a company tried to do this in-house. 


Why is collective intelligence so important?

Unlike simple problems which have obvious fixes, making progress on complex problems requires dealing with uncertainty and multiple unknowns. Collective Intelligence draws on a combination of data, technology and diverse human skills to address different aspects of uncertainty.

We are living in more uncertain times. In addition, AI is already being used by many businesses and is a great opportunity to augment collective intelligence in real ways. 


Atlas powers collective intelligence

Atlas is  the first intelligent knowledge platform for Microsoft 365.  Atlas is leading the way when it comes to empower employees to securely use AI in the flow of their work, by dynamically connecting to approved, authoritative collective intelligence. Atlas enables organizations to get ahead by removing friction from knowledge creation and finding, as well as establishing authoritative content sources and enriching search experiences.

With Atlas, you can start taking advantage of the collective intelligence within your organisation by:

  • Harvesting knowledge from as wide a field as possible
  • Make it easy to create new knowledge
  • Make the platform accessible to everyone and encourage those with local or specific knowledge to contribute
  • Serve knowledge back in logical contexts
  • Atlas revolutionizes how organizations define authoritative knowledge from diverse content sources. Atlas dynamically creates and maintains 'Knowledge Collections and ensures Artificial Intelligent prompts are equipped with the most reliable and contextual input, raising the accuracy and dependability of AI-generated content.


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Author bio

Katya Linossi

Katya Linossi

My job is to shape the vision, strategy, culture and performance of ClearPeople. Other than being passionate about making workplaces more inclusive, I enjoy planning our next travel adventure or trying out a new recipe.

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