Anne Nelly Perret-Clermont, who worked on the construction of intelligence through social interaction , described collective intelligence as “the art to maximise simultaneously creative freedom and collaborative efficiency” (Perret-Clermont, 1996). This practice, a growing requirement in all professional fields, is neither an innate quality nor a learnt skill shared by individuals, it’s a on-the-moment teamwork maximising effort, just like a rugby scrum is.
In the middle of a sweaty, muddy, brutal rugby match, the scrum is this time where both teams share an intense “moment”, packing closely together with their heads interlocked with the opposing team to gain possession of the ball through pushing and turning around it.
Bootcamping for three weeks with the other EdTech (learning sciences) and AIV (life sciences) Master students at CRI was like a rugby scrum without the mud. If a rubgy coach had written our program, it would have looked like this :
Week 1 : Meet the new teammates. Daily group building exercises.
Target : Build a common understanding of teamwork and team mission for the season.
Week 2 : Meet the oponent team (in our case, the students following the biology master path)
Target : Learn tactics and mindset of the differently trained team
Week 3 : Meet experienced player (in our case, PhD students and institution researchers).
Target : Understand the different types of fields and teams.
Three lessons on collective intelligence
Throughout this collective tournament, we got to experience many moments of scrum-like collective intelligence with groupwork and collective exercises.
We learnt three main lessons on collective intelligence.
- Collective intelligence is more than a sum of individual intelligence
“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
George Bernard Shaw
Olfa Gréselle-Zaïbet, who does research on group cohesion in work environments in the University of Lorraine, describes collective intelligence as a system and observes that it “is the sum of the intelligences plus their relation to each other” (Gréselle-Zaïbet, 2007). Indeed, one could but be amazed by the popping up of ideas once a group gets focused together.
Our scrum of five, working on the question of happiness at schools, imagined thousands of ways to improve the learning environment : adding plants, having game sessions, working in duos,… with detailed set-ups imagined. More than the ideas themselves, the process where listening to an idea created five other ideas, multiplying exponantially, exceeded the famous quote from George Bernard Show who could have written instead “then each of us will have an infinite number of ideas”.
2. Collective intelligence depends more on sociability skills than on individual intelligence
Studying collective intelligence, Anita Williams Woolley, researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, observed that its quality level depends more on the “ the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group” than on the “average or maximum individual intelligence” of the group members (2010).
Meeting and observing other groups, we got to compare different group dynamics and level of achievement. If in one scrum of five, two persons felt and certainly were very intelligent, their imposition on the group, leaving no room for others to give input resulted first in tensions then in the explosion of the group who decided to work everyone on his own.
Another group however, found ways and enjoyed working together on topics in which they were not necesarily trained. Giving room for all to participate, taking time before starting to check if everyone was ok, and certainly the presence of a majority of women helped them build a successful project.
3. Collective intelligence has to be fostered
Groupwork or teambuilding exercises don’t necesarily result in a collective intelligence process. Pierre Lévy, who introduced the concept of collective intelligence, points out that “collective intelligence doesn’t emerge spontaneously nor instantaneously : it takes time — the members will learn to know, act, and think togeter — and there can be conflicts : the members will have to confront their representations of the situation and their different interests”. (Lévy, 1997)
Faced with the task of writing an interdisciplinary research project proposal, our group for example decided to take half a day to present oneself to each other, share our backgrounds, desires and fears.
However long and useless it may have seemed at the beginning, when our deadline was so close, we experienced that the time we took to get to know each other allowed us to align our different rhythms and energies to one another and become, in the end, more efficient than groups who had dived in the writing straight away.
As a rugby scrum, collective intelligence is both an intense experience of struggle with oneself and with others but also a rare moment of alignment of energies. If we learnt some lessons out of these experiences, we wonder if, as for professional rugby players, the quality of our participation in the collective intelligence scrum improves with the practice.
A year in a collaboration stimulating environment like the CRI, may give us some answers.
Perret-Clermont, A.-N.(1996). La construction de l’intelligence dans l’interaction sociale.(5e édition, version augmentée de la première édition parue chez Lang en 1979) Berne: Peter Lang.
Gréselle-Zaïbet (2007). Vers l’intelligence collective des équipes de travail : une étude de cas, in Management & Avenir (https://www.cairn.info/revue-management-et-avenir-2007-4-page-41.htm)
Woolley et al. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, in Science, vol. 330 (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686)
Lévy P., Bononno R. (1997). Collective intelligence : mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace. Plenum Press Ed.