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May 4, 2011, 9:30 a.m.

MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups

Do groups have genetic structures? If so, can they be modified?

Those are two central questions for Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational structure and group intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In a talk this week at IBM’s Center for Social Software, Malone explained the insights he’s gained through his research and as the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which he launched in 2006 in part to determine how collective intelligence might be harnessed to tackle problems — climate change, poverty, crime — that are generally too complex to be solved by any one expert or group. In his talk, Malone discussed the “genetic” makeup of collective intelligence, teasing out the design differences between, as he put it, “individuals, collectively, and a collective of individuals.”

The smart group

First is the question of whether general cognitive ability — what we think of, when it comes to individuals, as “intelligence” — actually exists for groups. (Spoiler: it does.) Malone and his colleagues, fellow MIT researchers Sandy Pentland and Nada Hashmi, Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley, and Union College’s Christopher Chabrisassembled 192 groups — groups of two to five people each, with 699 subjects in all — and assigned to them various cognitive tasks: planning a shopping trip for a shared house, sharing typing assignments in Google Docs, tackling Raven’s Matrices as a group, brainstorming different uses for a brick. (For you social science nerds, the team chose those assignments based on Joe McGrath‘s taxonomy of group tasks.) Against the results of those assignments, the researchers compared the results of the participants’ individual intelligence tests, as well as the varying qualities of the group, from the easily quantifiable (participants’ gender) to the less so (participants’ general happiness).

And what they found is telling. “The average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group doesn’t predict group intelligence,” Malone said. Which is to say: “Just getting a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make a smart group.” Furthermore, the researchers found, group intelligence is also only moderately correlated with qualities you’d think would be pretty crucial when it comes to group dynamics — things like group cohesion, satisfaction, “psychological safety,” and motivation. It’s not just that a happy group or a close-knit group or an enthusiastic group doesn’t necessarily equal a smart group; it’s also that those psychological elements have only some effect on groups’ ability to solve problems together.

So how do you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively? First of all, seed them with, basically, caring people. Group intelligence is correlated, Malone and his colleagues found, with the average social sensitivity — the openness, and receptiveness, to others — of a group’s constituents. The emotional intelligence of group members, in other words, serves the cognitive intelligence of the group overall. And this means that — wait for it — groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men. (As Malone put it: “More females, more intelligence.”) That’s largely mediated by the researchers’ social sensitivity findings: Women tend to be more socially sensitive than men — per Science! — which means that, overall, more women = more emotional intelligence = more group intelligence.

Which, yay. And it’s easy to see a connection between these findings and the work of journalists — who, whether through crowdsourcing or commentary, are trying to figure out the most productive ways to amplify, and generally benefit from, the wisdom of crowds. News outfits are experimenting not just with inviting group participation in their work, but also with, intriguingly, defining the groups whose participation they invite — the starred commenters, the “brain trust” of readers, etc. Those experiments are based, in turn, on a basic insight: that the “who” of groups matters as much as the “how.” Attention to the makeup of groups on a more granular, person-to-person level may extend the benefits even further.

The group genome

But where Professor Malone’s ideas get especially interesting from the Lab’s perspective is in another aspect of his work: the notion that groups have, in their structural elements, a kind of dynamic DNA. Malone and his colleagues — in this case, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas — are essentially trying to map the genome of human collectivity, the underlying structure that determines groups’ outcomes. The researchers break the “genes” of groups down to interactions among four basic (and familiar) categories: what, who, why, and how. Or, put another way: what the project is, who’s working to enact it, why they’re working to enact it, and what methods they’re using to enact it. (So the “genetic structure” of the Linux community, for example, breaks down to relationship among the what of creating new tools and shaping existing ones; the who of the crowd combined with Linus Torvalds, and his lieutenants; the why of love, glory, and, to an extent, financial gain; and the how of both collaboration and hierarchical ordering. The interplay among all those factors determines the community’s outward expression and outcomes.)

That all seems simple and obvious — because it is — but what makes the approach so interesting and valuable from the future-of-news perspective is, among other things, its disaggregation of project and method and intention. Groups form for all kinds of reasons, but we generally pay little attention to the discrete factors that lead them to form and flourish. Just as understanding humans’ genetic code can lead us to a molecular understanding of ourselves as individuals, mapping the genome of groups may help us understand ourselves as we behave within a broader collective.

And that knowledge, just as with the human genome, might help us gain an ability to manipulate group structures. When it comes to individuals, intelligence is measurable — and, thus, it has a predictive element: A smart kid will most likely become a smart adult, with all the attendant implications. Individual intelligence is fairly constant, and, in that, almost impossible to change. Group intelligence, though, Malone’s findings suggest, can be manipulated — and so, if you understand what makes groups smart, you can adjust their factors to make them even smarter. The age-old question in sociology is whether groups are somehow different, and greater, than the sum of their parts. And the answer, based on Malone’s and other findings, seems to be “yes.” The trick now is figuring out why that’s so, and how the mechanics of the collective may be put to productive use. Measuring group intelligence, in other words, is the first step in increasing group intelligence.

Malone and his colleagues have identified 16 “genes” so far, as expressed in groups like Wikipedia contributors, YouTube uploaders, and eBay auctioneers. “We don’t believe this is the end, by any means, but we think it’s a start,” he said — a way to rethink, and perhaps even revolutionize, the design of groups. Organizational design theory in the 20th century, he noted, generally focused on traditional, hierarchical corporations. But as digital tools give way to new kinds of collectives, “it seems to me,” the professor said, that “it’s time to update organizational design theory for these new organizations.”

Image via ynse used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 4, 2011, 9:30 a.m.
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