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What Is Collective Intelligence?

Collective intelligence +1

August 17, 2023


Collective intelligence is a term that was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1992 book The Logic of Practice. 

‍It refers to the shared and cumulative knowledge, skills, and competencies that exist within a community of people and their ability to work together towards a common goal.  

‍More recently, the innovation foundation Nesta explained that:

  Collective intelligence is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas, and insights to address a social challenge.

There are two important principles of collective intelligence:

       1. There is value in independence

       2. There is value in social interactions

While these two principles may seem at odds with each other, collective intelligence emerges when both of them occur in harmony.

Collective intelligence for business innovation

When conducted in the right way, collective intelligence can be used for business innovation. 

‍Collective intelligence can help to future-proof organisations, ensuring that leaders make smarter decisions inclusive of the knowledge and consensus of ideas from their organisational and community stakeholders.

‍The concept of collective intelligence has been gaining popularity in recent years due to its relevance in the digital age. 

‍As we live more of our lives online, there are more opportunities for us to share information with each other. You can see this every day, through social media networks and forums where users can post questions or comments about a topic of interest. Organisations are no different, as shown by an ever-increasing reliance on digital tools and communication.

The challenge of collective intelligence

The biggest challenge we face is the aggregation of all the shards of information that are scattered across an organisation (e.g., consumer data or employees’ knowledge and experiences) into collective intelligence data that can be used to make smart decisions and reach conclusions informed by evidence. 

‍Organisations and businesses integrate stakeholders’ information all the time, e.g. with team meetings, emails and Slack messages. These ways to exchange information are qualitative in nature. However, qualitative data can be difficult to interpret at scale when teams become too big. and draw firm conclusions that are representative of the sentiments of a large group of people.

‍In this article, we're going to take a look at some of the ways that collective intelligence can be harnessed from an organisation’s stakeholders. We'll also look at some of the problems that can arise when an organisation doesn't have a conscious approach towards using collective intelligence for organisational decision-making.

Traditional methods of collective intelligence research

Even though we live in a digital age, many companies still rely on traditional methods for harnessing the collective intelligence of their organisations. These include surveys, expert panels or task forces, and large group meetings. 

These three methods are the ones most people have heard of. Each of them has strengths and drawbacks of their own. On the whole, each method requires a lot of time and effort to design, administer and analyse the data. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most common methods in collective intelligence research, as well as their strengths and drawbacks:


  • Results are often inconclusive

It's hard to get good qualitative data from surveys. Plus, very few people engage no matter how many reminders you send.

  • Responses have no context

You can't get context from simple written responses like you can with conversational research methods. A limited understanding of the context behind a survey response leads to uninformed decision-making.

  • Surveys have low engagement

Low engagement slows data collection making your pool of collective intelligence too small or biased to gather broad insights.

  • Balancing independence and social learning

When people think independently, you can avoid ‘groupthink’ in your research. That's a good thing (see principle 1 above). But, it also means that people don't learn from each other or share other perspectives, which strengthens collective intelligence.

Expert Panels

  • People feel excluded

A diversity of opinions is crucial for collective intelligence to achieve representativeness & better decisions. While small expert groups are good for time-sensitive decisions, they're not inclusive of a large group of stakeholders’ experiences and opinions.

  • Small groups lack diversity

A small group cannot consider all stakeholder perspectives and experiences. This can lead to people feeling that decisions are unfair, meaning that organisational decisions do not have the buy-in of a majority group of stakeholders.

  • Who are the experts?

It’s easy to put together a small expert group. But who are they? An unknown group of ‘experts’ may leave your stakeholders feeling like the expert group is not representative of their collective experiences, thoughts, or feelings.

  • Expert decisions often lack resilience

What happens when the experts get it wrong? Experts often use similar mental models and tap into a common pool of knowledge to solve problems. While their accuracy can be high (they are experts after all!), when experts are wrong they tend to be very wrong all at the same time.  But it’s not all bad news! Experts' decisions can be more resilient when they are supported by more points of view.

Group Meetings

  • They can get out of hand

Big group meetings can get out of control when a few loud voices make it difficult for others to contribute. For collective intelligence, local influence (influencing a few people near you) is better than global influence (influencing the whole group). Everyone should be able to influence or learn from others, but one loud voice should not have sway over everyone.

  • Polarisation

Large group discussions can get chaotic. It's hard for a large group of people to agree to something because there is a risk they form camps with opposing views that don't listen to each other.

  • Loud voices

Herding. Peer pressure. Groupthink. In big groups, most people follow the crowd. Under these conditions. A few loud voices can sway the decisions of a group.

  • Logistics

It's hard to find a time that works for everyone to talk through a decision. This can slow down decision-making. It can also cost a lot of money and takes a team, like group facilitators, to run.

New technology for modern collective intelligence research

Existing online tools allow you to rapidly survey your stakeholders and collect individual ideas and feedback from anyone  ‍

While you may have come across or even used these surveys, they still provide you with the hurdles of making sense of qualitative data and the majority don’t allow space for spoken-word data.

The power of spoken-word data in collective intelligence

Researchers have suggested that people express ideas differently when they talk than when they write. In comparison to written language, spoken language is richer in nuance, expression, and intuition. We learn more from spoken-language data from conversations than a survey, for example. This is why organisations often spend a lot of money on focus groups and user interviews. 

‍Conversations between people can surface arguments and pros and cons about the topic discussed (e.g., how can we improve this product for you?) that would be missing from simply asking someone to talk to the research team.

‍To unlock the full potential of your organisation’s collective intelligence, you would have to hold organisation-wide conversations with your stakeholder group (your employees, your customers), that can balance independence and social learning.

‍Knowing this, and wanting the best quality data possible from our stakeholders, how can we organise large-scale conversations without the utter chaos or impossibility of traditional methods? You can’t exactly hold a group meeting with 5000 people where everyone has their voice heard…

Conducting large-scale conversations

Here’s the bit where we tell you about the amazing new platform we’ve created… 

We created PSi (People Supported Intelligence) to enable the collection and analysis of conversational data of thousands of people and ensure large groups’ decision-making in under one hour. 

PSi gives researchers detailed audio insights, provides thorough conversation transcripts, and reduces thousands of ideas crowdsourced from your stakeholders to one unified consensus in less than an hour. It’s the fastest possible way to poll a group, no matter its size, and retain the quality of qualitative audio data to produce actionable insights from your stakeholders, whatever your organisational goals.

PSi can be accessed from any computer or mobile device and upholds the valuable insights found in conversations while reducing social biases, loud voices and the challenging logistics of conducting large-scale research.

Introducing voice-led research to your teams

One study suggested that introducing a new spoken-word system ‘requires a users' familiarity with the system, ease-of-use, speed of the system, trust, comfort level, fun factor, and novelty’   - all factors that drive engagement and adoption of voice technology.

‍We’re scientists, so we pay attention to research.‍

Get in touch. We will help your users understand and get comfortable with PSi, develop trust, and demonstrate the ease of use, and the fun they can have with it. We’ll also help you to understand how much simpler your research can be!

It’s always a learning curve when introducing new processes and technologies into a business, so we’ll be on hand to offer support to you and your users as you begin to empower your organisation and its stakeholders with the capabilities of PSi.

We’ll need to set you up, which takes just a few minutes. So, drop us your contact details below and we’ll be in touch as soon as possible.

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