When it comes to brainstorming and decision-making, many heads are better than one. But how do you tap into an organization’s collective intelligence and engage all employees? The IT Business Group spoke to Erik Lockhart, associate director of Queen’s Executive Decision Centre, about maximizing business potential through collective intelligence.ITB: How do you know if people in your organization are engaged?

Lockhart: This is an ongoing leadership challenge that we see in many organizations. The old term was employee satisfaction, and now people are trying to measure engagement. A recent Towers Perrin study was done on employee engagement worldwide and they found that 14 per cent of employees were engaged on the job. If you have seven out of eight employees who aren’t engaged, that can be pretty scary. They used to look at absenteeism, and now they’re studying presenteeism – you may have your bum in the seat and you may be breathing but you’re completely mentally elsewhere. So if you can engage employees, it will add a lot more to the collective intelligence of the organization.

ITB: How can collective intelligence technologies get everyone involved?

Lockhart: Making it easier to be involved in terms of access, effort, fun and recognition of contribution. People are more engaged if they feel like they’re recognized and they’re contributing to the greater good, but it’s also important that people understand what’s in it for them. They’re often reluctant to share ideas because they’ve been burned in the past or haven’t been recognized or their boss is a dictator and not looking for true collective intelligence.

ITB: How important is the right technology to making it work?

Lockhart: It’s critical. The wrong technology won’t support collective intelligence and can cause more harm than good. Equally important are the people using it. A fool with a tool is still a fool. So you need the right person using it and the right technology.

ITB: What technologies could this include?

Lockhart: You have same-time, same-place collective intelligence technologies such as electronic brainstorming software, which we use for consensus building. You also have same-time, different-place [technologies], such as videoconferencing. Then you have different-place, different-time technologies, and certainly the Internet is a good example of that – e-mail and blogs and servers that allow people to share files. Listservs are the ultimate example of collective intelligence, but you need to be careful to manage the group knowledge with an effective moderator.

ITB: How does Queen’s Executive Decision Centre work?

Lockhart: We have hardware and software combined with facilitation to capture collective intelligence, so what we’re trying to do is what I call group magic. It’s really useful when a problem is too complex for a single person to see all the views and it’s necessary to gain a consensus of many views. The way our process works is we pose a question, the group responds on individual laptops independently and anonymously and simultaneously, and all the ideas go up on a public screen at the front of the room. Then you can talk about the ideas and cluster the themes and then, if you want to, you can prioritize the ideas and people can literally vote on their laptops. It shows very quickly which are the best ideas. It brings more discipline to organizing a group’s collective intelligence and prevents domination, so your autocratic boss isn’t trying to dominate the group. This process democratizes the meeting and also brings out the brainy wimps, those people who often have great ideas but, for whatever reason, don’t contribute because they’re scared to stand up in front of a group and speak out. You tend to evaluate ideas on their merit, and not the source.

ITB: What are the benefits of collective intelligence?

Lockhart: More views are usually better than a single view, and it usually increases the quality of the outcome. If you have the right technology and right processes in place, you can have closer coordination of relationships with customers, suppliers and all your stakeholders. Another important benefit is you have more accurate mapping of a company’s intellectual capital.

ITB: What are some challenges to making it work?

Lockhart: It’s not easy managing and building and facilitating collective intelligence. One of the big challenges is organizational culture – so, for example, if you have a lack of willingness to share knowledge, if you have self-centred mindsets, if you have egos that are not aligned with the common good, if you have autocratic bosses, that organizational culture is a challenge. You still need the right minds involved – if you have uninformed people participating, it’s not intelligent but it’s collective ignorance, so sometimes you need to structure the decision process so it favours expert opinions.

ITB: Is this where the business world is heading?

Lockhart: Definitely. Speed and complexity of the modern business world and globalization demands an intelligence that considers many different perspectives, and sometimes international perspectives. It also ensures employees are engaged. Organizations that best harness the collective intelligence of their people will win out. The ultimate question to ask is: Is your organization a collection of intelligences or is it a collective intelligence?

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