Collective intelligence is the body of knowledge that grows out of a group. When groups of people work together, they create intelligence that cannot exist on an individual level. Making decisions as a group, forming a consensus, getting ideas from different sources and motivating people through competition are all components of collective intelligence.

Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at MIT and the founding director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, coined the term. In his book, “The Future of Work,” Malone has theorized that businesses of the future will look very different from today’s organizations because of collective information gathering. Artificial intelligence involving computers and other types of automation have produced collective intelligence as different types of groups connect with one another to produce a body of knowledge.

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Almost Everything Falls Under the Collective Umbrella

In an interview with The Edge, Malone notes that virtually everything that he and other individuals do today falls under the auspices of collective intelligence. What we consider intelligence doesn’t just simply arise in everyone’s brains as it also encompasses the interactions among individuals. Malone defines the term as people acting together in a way that appears to be intelligent. The opposite, namely groups acting together in what may, for lack of a better phrase appear to be stupid, also occurs. Groups that qualify for the collective term include families, companies, countries, armies and the like. Collective behavior, whether intelligent or stupid, has existed for a long time.

Sources of Collective Intelligence

Many different theories exist on where collective intelligence comes from and where it resides. The Co-Intelligence Institute notes that intelligence in a group dynamic involves many different approaches and perspectives and can include a number of factors. These can include:

  • Experiencing intelligence of groups of people as a larger body of intelligence that operates through individuals
  • The minds that comprise intelligence collective influence the whole and those who access its common body of knowledge
  • An emergent property of a social system that includes information gathering, communication systems, learning systems and similar cultural patterns
  • Is a group phenomenon in which the intelligence of each individual merges into a larger form of intelligence

Intelligence as a Capacity and as Strategic Information

The ability to adapt and solve problems, such as problem-solving, reasoning, learning, prediction, etc. are all ascribed to intelligence as a collective capacity. Other components of intelligence as a capacity include perception, reasoning and logic, analysis, intuition, experience, consciousness and awareness, reflection, creation, and invention, among others.

Strategically using facts that have been gathered is another crucial component of intelligence. Think of the intelligence that countries gather as an example. The information gathered acts as a basis for crucial decision making and affects society as a whole. While intelligence professionals only make up a small percentage of a society at large, such individuals exist in societies on man different levels and contribute to the larger sense of what intelligence is all about.

The idea of intelligence helps people understand the meaning of what it is to be human. Realizing the intelligence is primarily a collective phenomenon helps people understand the meaning of collective intelligence and what it means to live in society as a whole.