Group Genius and Collective Intelligence

A new study in Science magazine* provides additional evidence for group genius. My own research with collaborating groups has repeatedly demonstrated that groups manifest emergent properties, that are not reducible to the individual characteristics of the group members; this new study confirms my own findings, using a novel qualitative approach combined with “smart badges” designed by MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland.

The researchers studied 699 people that were placed into groups of between 2 and 5 people. Then, they had the groups solve visual puzzles, engage in brainstorming, solve collective moral judgments, and negotiate over limited resources. From the group performance on these tasks, they derived a measure of “collective intelligence”. Using statistical methods, they found a common factor that accounted for more than 43% of the variance on all of the group tasks; they called this measure of group genius c, following the longstanding use of g to indicate “general intelligence” of an individual as measured by standard intelligence tests.

They also had each individual group member take a standard intelligence test, to identify the g score of each group member. And guess what? The average intelligence of all of a group’s members is not significantly correlated with collective intelligence! They also found that the maximum g score was not correlated with c.

When they combined the results of this first study with a second study, they found a moderate relationship between average g and maximum g and c. But c was still a much better predictor of a group’s performance than either average g or maximum g.

What I particularly like about this study is that they also looked at what factors caused a high c. Group cohesion did not; motivation did not; satisfaction did not. The factors that resulted in a high c were: the average social sensitivity of the group members; and the extent to which participation in the conversation was equally distributed across group members (they used the sociometric “smart” badges to measure this). (Some news stories have reported that the presence of women in the group increased its c score, but this effect was largely mediated by social sensitivity, because women score higher on social sensitivity. In other words, it’s not having a female per se that increases c; it’s having members with higher social sensitivity, and they could be male or female.)

This finding confirms the message of my research, as reported in my book Group Genius: effective creative groups display emergent properties that cannot be explained in terms of the aggregated properties of the individual members. I use a different methodology, interaction analysis, to identify the group processes associated with effective group genius; using that methodology, I also found that equal participation results in higher group performance. The key advance of this study is the development of a quantitative measure of “collective intelligence” that meets many of the criteria required of an effective psychometric (or sociometric) assessment. My own methodology of interaction analysis allows a richer explanation of what’s going on; I identified nine other properties of group interaction associated with group genius.

I look forward to reading more great studies from this research team!

*Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Anita Williams Woolley,1,* Christopher F. Chabris,2,3 Alex Pentland,3,4 Nada Hashmi,3,5 Thomas W. Malone3,5. Originally published in Science Express on 30 September 2010; Science 29 October 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6004, pp. 686 – 688

Supreme Court Decides: Business Processes May Not Be Patentable

Back in June 2009, I blogged about Bilski v. Doll, a Supreme Court case to determine whether an abstract business process can be patented. In 1997, Bilski and Warsaw applied for a patent on a process to hedge risks in the sale of commodities. The patent examiner rejected the patent application on the grounds that “the invention is not implemented on a specific apparatus and merely manipulates [an] abstract idea and solves a purely mathematical problem without any limitation to a practical application, therefore, the invention is not directed to the technological arts.” Bilski and Warsaw appealed; the appeals court affirmed the rejection, because the process failed to transform a physical substance into another state. In other words, the patent was an application for an abstract process, not a machine or a transformation, and thus was ineligible for patent protection.

On June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the rejection 9 to 3. Their decision stated that patent-eligible processes do not include “laws of nature, natural phenomena, [or] abstract ideas.” The method was not eligible for patent protection because it didn’t “transform any article to a different state or thing.” Options, futures contracts, and business risks “cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances.”

Chilean Miners Saved by Collaboration

We’ve all been watching as the most impressive mine rescue in history took place.  We saw pictures of the narrow capsule that barely fit into a tiny tunnel that carried out the miners, one by one. What made this amazing feat possible? Collaboration. And a particular type of collaboration: a collaborative web of technological innovation, coming from the four corners of the earth. This was not a story of creative genius; it was a story of small ideas, each from a different team, coming together in Chile.

  1. The drill bit that allowed the just-wide-enough tunnel to be dug. It was created by the company Center Rock, Inc., in Berlin, Pennsylvania.
  2. The high-strength cable that held the capsule was from Germany.
  3. The fiber optic communications cable was from Japan.
  4. The camera that sent photos of the miners to the surface was in a Samsung cell phone that had its own projector.
  5. The miners wore special socks, made with a copper fiber, that prevented bacteria from infecting the miners’ feet. Those came from Cupron, Inc., in Richmond, Virginia.

This is the nature of innovation today: it brings together many distinct creative ideas. The biggest problems facing the world today are going to take the same kind of collaborative approach. They’re complex problems and they require many distinct creative moments. More likely than not, some of the critical ideas are already out there somewhere. They key to successfully solving the most challenging problems facing the world today: bring people and ideas together into collaborative webs.

Want to learn more about collaborative webs? Reach my book Group Genius, Chapters 8, 9, and 10.

* Thanks to the WSJ article by Daniel Henninger, October 14, 2010, p. A19, and another article by Matt Moffett on September 30.

2010 National Business Innovation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has just released preliminary results of its second annual Business R&D and Innovation Survey, which they call the BRDIS (it has to be one of the least catchy acronyms I’ve ever encountered; the NSF has a history of creating uncatchy acronyms, but this one, unfortunately, makes me think of the word “bris”). Here’s a quick summary from their web page:

Preliminary figures from the Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS)–fielded for the first time in 2009–indicate that some 22 percent of companies in manufacturing industries reported one or more product innovations (goods and/or services) in the period 2006-08 and about 22 percent introduced process innovations (new methods for manufacturing or production; logistics, delivery, distribution; support activities). Among manufacturing sectors with the highest incidence of innovation (computer/electronic products, chemicals, and electrical equipment/appliances/components), 37 percent to 45 percent of companies reported product innovations and 28 percent to 34 percent reported process innovations. About 8 percent of the estimated 1.5 million for-profit companies represented by the survey are classified as manufacturing industries.

The vast majority (92 percent) of companies represented by the survey are classified as nonmanufacturing. Here, 8 percent of companies reported product innovations and 8 percent reported process innovations. Largely, these companies are in such industries as wholesale/retail trade, hotels, entertainment, and personal services, where the rate of product and process innovation is low. The information sector was an innovation standout among nonmanufacturing industries, with 30 percent of companies reporting product innovations and 20 percent reporting process innovations.

Companies that perform and/or fund R&D reported a far higher incidence of innovation than did companies without any R&D activity: 66 percent of companies with R&D activity reported product innovations and 51 percent reported process innovations. In contrast, 7 percent of companies that were not active in R&D reported product innovations and 8 percent reported process innovations.

When all of these industry groupings are taken together, about 9 percent of companies represented by the survey were product innovators in the period 2006-08 and about 9 percent were process innovators. (Product and process innovation overlap to some extent, and the incidence figures are in general not additive.)

Who is most creative at work?

I just read an interesting new study published in The Academy of Management Journal by Christina Shalley, Lucy L. Gilson, and Terry C. Blum.* They were looking for variables that predicted creative performance at work. A lot of previous studies have found that creative personalities score higher on creative work performance (no surprise) and that having a supervisor and work environment that foster creativity leads to more creative work performance (again, no surprise there). Shalley and her colleagues were looking for something more subtle:  They examined a personality characteristic they called “growth need strength,” the desire to grow and develop in your job.

They did a massive telephone survey with 1,465 people, and got three results:

1. When you control for other aspects of the creative personality, growth need strength predicts additional variance in creative work performance.

2. The relationship is stronger in more supportive work contexts.

3. When job complexity is high, relationships (1) and (2) are even stronger.

The bottom line: the most creative workers have a high need to grow at work, have a supportive work context, and are given challenging, complex tasks.

* Shalley, Gilson, & Blum (2009). “Interactive effects of growth need strength, work context, and job complexity on self-reported creative performance.” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 489-505.