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By Daisy Hernandez, Global Vice President of Product Management, Enterprise Collaboration at SAP

The rise of chat bots and other AI-based tools has recently spurred conversations about shifting workplace communications – changing the way we interact with applications or software. The truth is that we have been working alongside advanced technology since the computer was introduced, so this shift has been happening for quite some time now and part of the evolution of technology.

To better understand how we can continue to tap innovative technology as it becomes even more sophisticated and intelligent, we connected with Professor Thomas Malone at MIT Sloan School of Management. Professor Malone is also the Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and author of The Future of Work, and is more than knowledgeable about workplace dynamics in the digital age.

Daisy Hernandez (DH): Collective intelligence — when humans and computers connect to become more intelligent than before — is a concept that you helped pioneer at MIT with the creation of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. How have AI, bots, and machine learning brought us closer to a collectively intelligent world?

Professor Thomas Malone (TM): Let’s begin with understanding collective intelligence. I define collective intelligence as “groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent.” By that definition, we are already living in a collectively intelligent world because companies, countries, and many other groups and organizations often act intelligently. But, many of the most interesting examples of collective intelligence today take the idea of humans and computers working together a step further – they examine how machines are making us smarter than we have ever been and how this newfound knowledge is going to impact the world. For example, Google and Wikipedia are tools we can now use to answer a question in a matter of seconds. At the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, we are investigating how people and computers together can be more intelligent than any person, group or computer has ever been before.

Turning to your question about the role of AI, bots, and machine learning – it’s difficult to predict the future and exactly how these applications will make us more intelligent. One thing that’s certain is that we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with these innovations. Right now, we are seeing computers become more powerful and more intelligent. If we can continue to harness their power and work with them we will continue to remain a collectively intelligent society.

DH: What steps must businesses take to foster collective intelligence?

TM: All companies are collectively intelligent to some extent. Today, it’s about how they can become more collectively intelligent as technology continues to advance. At this stage, I encourage leaders to take a step back from the day-to-day and consider what their business would look like if it had perfect collective intelligence.

For example, a completely collectively intelligent retail company would have tech and customer support representatives that knew everything that had previously been said or done to help customers in the past. As such, they would essentially know the answers to customer questions before they are even asked.

By participating in this exercise, leaders can envision possible futures for their company. From there, they can work backwards to identify the steps they need to take to become more collectively intelligent right now. In the retail example, this would include ways to store knowledge that will improve customer service agent interactions and capture customer data. While no company will ever have perfect collective intelligence, this exercise will give leaders the vision and first steps to move in that direction.

DH: As we move towards a collectively intelligent world where power is knowledge, why should employees feel compelled to share their hard-earned knowledge with others?

TM: Many years ago, my colleague Wanda Orlikowski did a study where a consulting firm used what was a new communication tool at the time – Lotus Notes – to see how they shared information across teams. The research revealed that people in the firm were rewarded for being an expert who knew things others didn’t, so they had an incentive to not share freely what they knew.

In a situation like that, it’s a very legitimate question about whether you should put everything you know in an online database of some kind or a discussion forum or whatever. What is your motivation for putting your hard-earned, specialized knowledge online where anyone can access it for free, even if that is just anyone else in your organization? In this type of environment, it’s not necessarily stupid to keep your expertise to yourself. One of the important questions for organizations is how they create the right incentives for people to share their knowledge in ways that others, at least in the organization, can take advantage of.

A consulting firm could, and I believe some consulting firms now do, reward people for not just being experts, but for sharing their expertise. In fact, I believe some firms consider compensation for individuals based on how much they’ve contributed to the sharing of knowledge, either online or offline. For instance, one way of measuring this is by how much individuals are respected by the people who have benefitted from the things they contributed.

In contrast, if you are at an organization that hasn’t made any special effort to create incentives for sharing knowledge, there still are good reasons to share at least some of the information you have because good things can come from that.

For one thing, if you share your knowledge you have the potential of establishing yourself as an expert – meaning, people will come to you when they need help in ways that can be beneficial to you as well. For instance, other people may be more willing to share their knowledge with you.

In the knowledge economy, one of the key differentiators of people who are successful is that they are the ones who are in the middle of the most useful idea or knowledge flows. If there are people talking about really exciting new ideas and you can be a part of those conversations, you have an opportunity to take advantage of those new ideas long before other people. One good way of becoming part of those conversations is to have some exciting ideas of your own that you can share.

DH: In a collectively intelligent world, what qualities do leaders need to succeed? How will their roles change?

TM: My book, The Future of Work, predicts that inexpensive communication will allow many more people to be involved in making decisions. This shift means that leaders must transition from a command-and-control mindset to what I call a coordinate-and-cultivate mindset.

In other words, leaders need to think about how to encourage people to make more decisions for themselves.  But leaders also need to help coordinate these people, so their decisions will fit with those made by people in other parts of the organization.

When discussing management style, there are two paradoxes to keep in mind:

  • Power: Sometimes the best way to gain power is to give it away. This is similar to the idea of sharing knowledge – sometimes the best way to gain knowledge is to give it away, and then other people will give you some of theirs. In the same way, if you try to hoard power and control everything yourself you may well end up with less control than if you give power freely away to other people.
  • Standards: Sometimes having rigid standards in parts of the system can give you more freedom and flexibility in other parts. The best example of that is the internet itself. Everyone in the world connected to the internet is using a very rigid, specific set of rules for how they communicate information over the internet. Those rules are called the internet protocol; you can’t be connected to the system without using those rules. In part, it is precisely because those rules are so rigid and so standardized that all the other flexibility and freedom we associate with the Internet is made possible.

Those two paradoxes are things for leaders to keep in mind as they manage in this more collectively intelligent world.

DH: You predicted in The Future of Work that technology and connectivity would help replace organizations’ rigid hierarchies with something more flexible and decentralized. Where are businesses today in the changed workplace that you imagined? What is the next step in this evolution?

TM: In The Future of Work, I predicted that new technologies for communication would help reduce organizations’ rigid hierarchies and could lead to something much more flexible and decentralized. There is a lot of evidence that this has happened to a fair degree already and it’s continuing to take place, especially if you think about differences between what businesses are like today and what they were like 20 or 30 years ago.

For example, many traditional companies have transformed from the “three-piece suit,” rigid hierarchies of the past to something much more decentralized today. Digitally native organizations such as Google and Facebook have a different culture comprised of small project teams, resulting in much more informal, decentralized ways of working together. The structure at these companies are very much in the direction I predicted long before they became the behemoths they are today.


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  1. Ramesh Babu Nagarajan

    Interesting topic indeed. Particularly the concept of enabling collective intelligence and achieving more power by giving it away are things that can definitely happen under right circumstances. One of the things I find sort of working cross purposes is the concept that sometimes forgetting things are needed to enable opportunities for new outcomes. The current trend of knowledge sharing, accumulation through Google, Wikipedia, AI bots to achieve ease of reference makes forgetting harder and harder. Ease of referencing the past stops risk taking and as well stops new learnings out of such risky endeavours.



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