The Collective Intelligence Genome

What is collective Intelligence?

When we talk about collective intelligence, what we are talking about? Is a flock of birds a CI? Is a shoal a CI? Yes, because both of this examples describes intelligence in a way that helps both species to survive and adapt considering the environment where they are. In other way, a CI can be the use of a community in a collaborative way, to pursue a specific goal or purpose. For example, Wikipedia is the largest web encyclopedia and was built by the knowledge of common people. Another example is Linux, the first open source operating system and was built by programmers around the world.

If Collective Intelligence has so good results why we don’t see it’s methodology applied in other companies or organizations, well, the question is deeper than we can suppose at first sight, the quick answer to this question is managers don’t know how to do it. In 1991 when Linus Torvalds wrote the first lines of code, of what would become Linux, he was far to know the concepts behind Collective Intelligence, so he’s path for this knowledge was mostly by trial and error, since then more companies and organizations followed his footsteps.

How collective Intelligence works?

To unleash the great capabilities of collective intelligence, we need a deep understanding of its concepts, these concepts were created in form of questions like:

  • What;
  • Who;
  • Why;
  • How

Through these concepts, we will make specific questions that will help us to design the system, like:

  • What is being done?
  • Who is doing it?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • How is it being done?

For each question, there is what we call building blocks or “genes”, these genes are the heart of CI System and will help to answer these questions. The combination of genes in a specific CI system can be viewed as the “genome” of that system.

Each question as a role in the system:

  • “What” will define the goal;
  • “Who” will define the people;
  • “Why” will define the incentives;
  • “How” will define the structure or process.

This design is a key feature of the system and help us to understand and better replicate the system.

Questions and genes, how they work?

As I said before if we look deeper in those questions we will find the genes, these genes characterize the question, for instance, if we ask “what is being done?” this question will be characterized by the genes “Create” and “Decide”, both have a specific purpose, in the “create” gene, the actors in the system, generate something new, taking the example of Google translator, this could be a new translation. In the “decide” gene, the actors will decide which translation should be included, or deleted.

The Who question is addressed to “who undertakes the activity?” for this, there is two specific genes, “crowd” and “hierarchy”, in the hierarchy, someone or a specific group of people is assigned to perform a specific task, for instance, taking again the example of Google translator, google can select someone or a group of skilled people to decide which translations should be maintained. In the “crowd” gene no particular person or group is assigned, instead anyone in the crowd could do it.

So, how to decide which we should use, well it depends, the crowd gene is used when many people have the resources and skills needed to perform an activity, or if we don’t know which people has the resources or skills to do it. In the Hierarchy, is different, we can use this specific gene, when just a few people have the required skillset, and we know who they are. This gene is especially useful when you don’t know how to get the crowd gene to work or to prevent people from crowd to sabotaging your goals.

The Why question is addressed to “why do people take part in the activity?” and this question is related with motivation, why do people take part in the activity? What motivates them to participate? To these questions, we find three specific genes: Money, Love and Glory.

So how these genes take part in this process? Money is surely a great motivator, sometimes people receive direct payments, like a salary, and sometimes is the possibility of gain a salary what motivates them, we see this specially in startups, people involves themselves in startups to pursuit their dreams, but also because of the possibility to make money, even if in the first times they have to work without payment.

Love is a powerful motivator, even if there’s no perspective of make money, people can be motivated only by the fact they doing what they like to do, or by the possibility of socialize or even by taking part in something greater than them. We see this in Wikipedia contributors, for instance.

Glory is also an important motivator, the desire of recognition by their pears or the possibility to see his name as a contributor is a great mobilizer for a lot of people. We see this behavior among Linux coders for instance.

So, considering these genes, how to choose which are better for my organization? For long time, many organizations have been using these genes, specially money, however only recently organizations waken up for the big potential of love and glory genes. Appealing to these genes has reduced costs in many companies, for instance, Goodreads, is a book website who relies on their community to make book reviews. Money and Glory can help the crowd to move faster, but is important to control how fast or in what direction the crowd moves, to this money and glory genes have an important contribution. By providing these specific genes to the members of the crowd, it’s possible to control in which direction or velocity the crowd should move.

Finally, we have the How question, that it is related with “how is it being done?”. The answer to this question has the purpose of describing the organizational structures and processes. In the “How” question we see some particularities, here the crowd gene as more influence in the structure and the “How” question is divided in two genes: create and decide, subsequently the create and decide genes integrate a sub set of genes. In the create gene we see the “collection” and “collaboration” genes and in the decide gene we see the “group decision” and “individual decisions” genes.

In the create gene the collection gene occurs when the items contributed by the members of the crowd are created independently of each other, we see this in Unsplash a site of free photos where users can post their photos and these are not related with each other.

In the collection gene, we have a sub type of gene, the contest, this is used when for instance we want the crowd to achieve a specific goal like produce a specific line of code or algorithm, giving to the winner a prize.

The collaboration gene occurs when members of a crowd work together to achieve a specific goal for instance a Wikipedia article, with other related articles.

In the decision gene as I mentioned before there are two main groups of genes, the “group decision” genes and “individual decision” genes.

The “group decision” gene is useful when everyone in the group has to be bound by the same decision, this gene as a sub set of related genes, these are: voting, consensus, averaging and prediction Market.

  • Voting is used in Youtube to rank the most viewed videos.
  • Consensus is used when all the group members agree in something, for instance when an article remain unchanged in Wikipedia, it is because everyone is satisfied with the current version.
  • Averaging is used to rate, for instance in Trip Advisor we see this kind of feature.
  • Prediction Markets gene allows the crowd to estimate the possibility of future events, if their predictions were correct they receive a prize or another reward, this is used in companies like Google or Microsoft.

The individual decisions genes occurs when members of a crowd make independent decisions, for instance in Youtube, users decide for themselves which videos to watch. In this category has in group decisions genes, we have a sub category of genes: Markets and Social Networks.

  • In Markets we see an exchange, like money, involved in the decision, we see this in GettyImages where photographers post their photos for sale on the website, and people or agencies buy the rights to use the photos.
  • In Social Networks, members of a crowd form a network of relationships, these networks are specially used to search for information from individual or corporative sources that we might consider useful, for instance Vloggers or bloggers.

Example of a Collective Intelligence Genome


Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia, written collaboratively by the people who use it. It is a special type of website designed to make collaboration easy, called a wiki. Many people are constantly improving Wikipedia, making thousands of changes per hour.