The Quest for
Collective Intelligence

by George Pór

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"The Quest for Collective Intelligence"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

Think about the organization where you work. Is it only a collection of individual intelligences or does it have a collective intelligence ? Organizations that will succeed in these times of accelerating changes will be social organisms with a collective intelligence to guide them through turbulence and transformations.

Organizations can thrive on the key evolutionary challenge of our age, identified by Douglas Engelbart as "the increasing complexity multiplied by the increasing urgency," only if they develop a high level of collective intelligence, or intellectual capital. Maximizing the organization's human and intellectual capital is its key to succeed in the new, knowledge-based economy.

An organization develops collective intelligence the same way bodies do - by growing and using a nervous system.


The Community Nervous System

"Today's environment is beginning to threaten today's organizations, finding them seriously deficient in their nervous system design.... The degree of coordination, perception, rational adaptation, etc., which will appear in the next generation of human organizations will drive our present organizational forms, with their clumsy nervous systems, into extinction." (Engelbart, 1970)

Only a community-a social organism-equipped with a robust and agile nervous system will able to anticipate and continually respond to the shifting concerns and needs of its members and stakeholders. (A "stakeholder" of a biological organism is all the other organisms in its habitat affected by its existence. "Stakeholders" of a community are all the individuals and organizations who have a stake in its success.)

The nervous system's evolution-both in living or social organisms-defines how effectively it can perform the following four functions:

The main function of a workplace community's collective intelligence is to provide the social organism with evolutionary guidance in the conditions of accelerating complexity and chaos. It serves to sustain the community by continuously augmenting its competence in rapidly responding to vital challenges and possibilities, as they emerge.

The nervous system in a social organism is the network of conversations that enables it to coordinate its actions and learn from its experience. To picture a network of conversations in a small company with 100 employees, imagine an animated flowchart with 100 small circles. Arrows of different sizes and colors link the circles to indicate the length and media of communications-phone calls, memos, reports, and various meetings-in a single day. Then imagine how this flowchart of conversations would look in a corporation of 10,000 people working on a large number of projects simultaneously, many of which require ongoing conversations among geographically scattered employees, suppliers, and customers.

For any organization to have all its members speak their minds in a few hours, the development of its collective intelligence calls for "electrifying" its network of conversations - for developing synergy between its people network and computer network. An "electrified" nervous system is the infrastructure needed for the self-organization and self-improvement of a community's collective intelligence. The four enabling functions of this nervous system are the same as in biological systems:

A collective intelligence system is a dynamic, living "ecosystem" for individual and collective learning, in which emergent patterns of meaning, coordination flows, insights, and inspiration interact, cross-fertilize, feed upon, and grow on each other. Those who want to grow such a system will have to, first, inquiry into each of its four enabling functions outlined above.


Communication Subsystem

Although the richest in multi-sensory signals, face-to-face meetings are a poor mode of communication when ongoing, many-to-many communication is required, or when speed of action is important and the community needs to process and evaluate simultaneous input from multiple internal and external sources.

To meet these challenges, the communication subsystem has to include the virtual space of conference calls or video conferences, which allow "same-time/different-space" meetings.

When conflicting schedules prevent simultaneous participation, or when continuous access to the shared mind of the community is crucial, then you add the virtual time technologies of e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, and computer conferencing which allow "different-time/different-space" meetings.

"Virtual time" means that a "server" or host-computer receives and holds everyone's input. Its store-and-forward capacity allows community members to access the documents of their electronic meeting of the minds, at any time of their choice and convenience.

For a leadership team committed to equip the community for sustainability, the single most important piece of the enabling infrastructure is the "any time/any space" computer conferencing system. Combined with the appropriate facilitation, this technology can connect not only the minds but the hearts and spirit of its users. This potential of the system is of vital importance because under pressure, high stress, challenges, or in breakdowns, the sustainability of the community depends on the quality of relationships among its members and with its outside stakeholders.

When setting up a conferencing system as the backbone of the intelligence infrastructure, it is essential to give special attention to including every member of the community. Without adequate access they cannot fully participate in the concurrent feeding and use of the ecosystem of collective intelligence. This is an unnecessary and unacceptable waste of the community's human capital and self-organizing capacity. Whatever weakens the diversity in the ecology of the collective mind, weakens the intelligence of the whole system.

Another critical factor determining the effectiveness of the nervous system is the seamless integration of real-time conversations held in a meeting room and those held continuously in the "virtual room" of computer-mediated meetings. For example, a management team that meets both in-person and on the electronic network, needs to discover for itself what is the best mix of these and other media-phone, fax, e-mail, videotape, etc.-for each of the major tasks they have to collaborate on.


Coordination Subsystem

To coordinate is to "bring into proper order or relation so as to have harmonious action" (Webster's Dictionary). Imagine what would happen if a community of you and me wanted to produce some kind of harmonious action-for example, a way to share and deepen the key insights that each of us gained as we were reading or writing this book. If only the two of us were involved, the only coordination tool we would need is the telephone.

However, if that community included not only you and me but also many other readers and writers of this anthology, then we would need, first, to develop some basic agreements about how to share our learning insights with each other. Agreements are the foundations of the community's coordination system . (Chadima & Hulin, 1994)

We would want a system that would allow us to keep our time and money spent on coordinating the action to a minimum, yet lets us produce powerful learning outcomes both for our ad hoc learning community and for each of its members. Fortunately, computer power has dramatically decreased the cost of coordination, thus increasing the possibility for collaboration and community. Collaboration researchers (Cashman & Stroll, 1987) reported these benefits:

I would add to this list the following benefits of today's coordination technologies:

The tools for a high-performance coordination system include:


Memory/Knowledge Management Subsystem

"Knowledge," as it used here, is the organization's capability to answer a question, a challenge, or an opportunity. "Memory" in an organization is the capability to retain an appropriate answer to a specific challenge or opportunity over time. (Hawkins & Pór, 1993) Knowledge and memory are two aspects of the same subsystem of the community's nervous system.

Without using computer technology, a community can neither organize large volumes of data into information, nor refine information into knowledge by structuring it for supporting the action. Douglas Engelbart, the visionary who in the early sixties first articulated how computers could augment our individual and collective intelligence, was also the first to paint the picture of an electronically augmented community memory system:

"An active community would be constantly involved in dialogue bearing upon the contents of the last formal version of its [electronic] Handbook-comments, errata, suggestions, challenges, counter examples, altered designs, improved arguments, new experimental techniques and data, etc.

"This human-resource sharing has explosive potential -I look to it with a biological metaphor as providing a new evolutionary stage for the nervous system of social organisms, from which much more highly developed institutional forms may evolve that are much improved in: awareness of self and environment, situational cognizance and response, visualization of the future, problem-solving capability, etc." (Emphasis added) (Engelbart, 1975)

Unlike a paper-based knowledge system, an online system allows updates and additions from its creators and users on an ongoing basis. Blurring the reader/writer and user/contributor distinctions, it can become a busy mental gym for the collective mind, the place where the community keeps raising the fitness level of its collective intelligence to match its challenges and opportunities.

A memory/knowledge system has two main functions: to support a sense of collective identity and to support the community's learning by enabling the rapid sharing of recorded experience and other knowledge resources. Without an explicit organizational memory system, the community's sense of identity is only anecdotal. For new members it may take years to piece together all the relevant stories from which a sense of the organization's identity may emerge.

A computerized system for managing the community's knowledge assets and memory should provide easy access to shared documents and lessons learned in the past. A well-designed system is not merely a repository of files and archives. It also includes the rationale and assumptions upon which actions were based so that they can be examined and improved for more effective future action. For example, an electronically indexed collection of video-taped interviews explaining the conditions that allowed successful teams to shorten the time needed for moving from breakdowns to breakthroughs will enable troubled teams to accelerate their learning by reviewing those lessons and using what is applicable.

The system should also indicate, as Nancy Dixon points out, "where specific organizational memories are located. For example, who knows about a particular issue or process? Who has been through it before? How does this situation compare to the one five years ago?" (Dixon, 1992)

In organizations that value and encourage both individual and collective learning, the benefits of a memory/knowledge system will be highly valued, monitored, and measured. In contrast, in organizations where the antidotes to learning-bureaucracy and fear-dominate relationships, there will be great resistance to any systemic, recorded form of community memory. That's because members engaged in coordinating their actions will most likely scan the memory/knowledge management subsystem for information needed to upgrade current standards of trust, interdependence, and accountability.

What does it take to build a memory/knowledge system?

First, leaders who understand and support the system's benefits to the community.

Second , a small but competent design team with at least one member trained in knowledge management.

Third , competence in organizing and facilitating the evolution of the community's shared knowledge, on an ongoing basis.

The core component technologies that a community needs to acquire for building its knowledge system include:

Both the document linkage and the argument management systems should be well indexed and cross-referenced for easy access by people with various information retrieval needs, skills, and strategies.


Learning Subsystem

As you read this or any other book, you may acquire new information, refreshing insights, and even inspirational ideas. But how will you know whether or not you learned something? What is learning, anyway?

You knew that you had learned to ride a bike when you actually rode one. I recall the delightful new sense of freedom I felt when I first shouted, "Look mom, no hands!" It is with this image in mind that I use the distinction "learning." As Larry Victor defined it, it is: "a process leading to an irreversible alteration of the structure of a system, that leads to the modification of the repertoire of potential behaviors, experiences, and improved cognition of the system." (Victor, 1994)

We learn as we become more capable of responding to the new challenges and opportunities that life throws at us all, as individuals and communities. We learn to learn as we become capable of responding faster to those challenges and opportunities.

A community cannot be sustainable and cannot endure the challenges from its environment, if its nervous system is not equipped for explicitly supporting the collaborative exploration of this question: How can the community as a whole increase its competence in learning to learn?

Part of the answer is: by designing and growing a robust learning system that keeps evolving as long as the community is committed to lifelong learning.

Unlike the memory/knowledge system which supports the content of the collective mind, the learning system supports its operations .

To envision a learning system in action, let's say your team is responsible for re-designing the collective intelligence infrastructure of your community. You want to access the best thinking and practices in the design of community nervous systems around the world. You subscribe to an online service called, say, "Collective Intelligence Systems," which is tailored to the needs of designers of intelligence infrastructures in medium to large communities. At your fingertips, you have in this electronic library hundreds of books, conference proceedings, benchmark reports, and interviews with senior designers of collective intelligence.

What makes this learning system so valuable to you is not only its voluminous content, but what it allows you to do with it. You can, for example:

All the capabilities described here are not technological pipe dreams. They can be developed on the foundations of existing technology.

High-performance learning communities plan for, and commit resources to, the articulation and periodic re-assessment of the community's short- and long-term learning needs, as part of the continuous improvement of its learning system.

The learning subsystem of the community's nervous system is responsible for supporting the learning objectives and processes of the community, including the objectives and processes of improving the infrastructure of its collective intelligence.

As more members of the community discover the rewards of the learning journey, they contribute to expanding and nurturing their shared intelligence and the infrastructure that supports it. The stronger the infrastructure, the more support it provides to each individual's learning journey.

Only a community that nurtures its collective intelligence will be able to continuously produce a valuable future for its members and stakeholders.


Systemic Wisdom

Having an adequate intelligence infrastructure is a necessary but insufficient condition of a community's long-term viability. The sustainability of social organisms also requires the exercise of systemic, collective wisdom.

Collective wisdom can be seen in the balance of nature's ecosystems. It is also present in the potential of your organization or community to anticipate its next crisis.

As David Spangler wrote, "It is this embracing, blending with, inhabiting, joining kind of knowledge that represents wisdom for me. I am not wise about something just because I have a lot of data about it; I am wise about something because I am one with it in some manner." (Spangler, 1991)

As learning is the "becoming" aspect of knowing, wisdom is its "being" aspect. Maintaining a dynamic balance between them is a vital competence of the community. To thrive, it must have both the wisdom to ask the right questions from itself at the right time, and the infrastructure for tapping into its own collective intelligence for responses.

Imagine an organization caught in the struggle between the economic necessity of laying off hundreds of employees within six months, and its sincere commitment to them as people. A management team aware of the social overhead of layoffs wouldn't just slough off those members of the company that it can't justify economically. From the place of connectedness, of being one community, they would look for creative breakthroughs that could meet the contradictory requirements of the situation. For example, they may ask themselves, "What can we do, in a short time, to increase our people's skills base, and so increase their chances of finding new, rewarding work here or elsewhere? How can we redesign our working relationships from 'all or nothing' to a continuum of connectedness?"


The Quest Continues

Before we can live in a learning society, in which the unfolding of each individual's and community's full creative potential is the highest value of the whole, we need a critical number of learning organizations to embrace that vision. I spot signs of such trend in examples, such as:

"Johnsonville Foods (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) changed its management style to allow the people who do the work to make decisions relating to their own jobs. One of the keys to this transformation was changing the focus of the company from using people to build the business to using the business to build great people . Member-development programs at the company include a personal-development fund, a resource center, and a personal-development workshop." (Emphasis added) (Honold, 1991)

Imagine if each community engaged in the process of growing its collective intelligence could tap into and contribute to the collective wisdom of all communities in transformation. A global electronic network of active practitioners of organizational innovation and learning is not only a possibility, it's a condition to accelerating both the evolution of the field and the learning curve of communities in transformation.

This possibility has just begun to turn into reality. If you want to learn about, and be part of the latest developments in collective intelligence as they unfold through the global computer networks, please send me an email.

The quest continues.





I am deeply grateful to my friend Rita Risser for the many ways she's been supporting my quest for collective intelligence. Her insightful editing, heartfelt encouragement, and generosity with the time spent on going through the manuscript in its various phases, all contributed to awaken my passion for writing.

I give thanks to my friends Darla Chadima and Geoffrey Hulin who read and commented on earlier versions of this chapter and helped me stay connected with the wisdom tradition of our tribe, while I've been out there "hunting" for collective intelligence.

by George Pór

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