How to Tap Into the Collective Intelligence of Your Workforce

By Vivek Bhaskaran  |  Posted 2010-05-26

How to Tap Into the Collective Intelligence of Your Workforce

Wikipedia describes collective intelligence as the "shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals." The notion of collective intelligence is not new. After all, every time we sit in a conference call or a meeting, that is exactly what we are doing. We're collectively pooling our resources-our intellectual horsepower-together to see if we can come up with a solution that is better than the sum of the individual parts. All along, we are also competing for attention in the form of time and recognition.

What is new, however, is the mode and scale at which this can be done now, successfully. Just as online meetings and conference calls have helped change the game in terms of remote access, work and productivity, companies that effectively harness the power of their most important asset-the intellectual capacity of their employees-will be able to extract higher value out of that same asset pool (their employees).

While taking a look at the success of Yammer, Salesforce Chatter and Jive Software's communication suite as models of communication across the employee base no matter how small a company, it'll be obvious that harnessing collective intelligence must be part of any organization's human capital strategy.

Now, let's go back to our definition from Wikipedia. There are two components the definition encompasses, Collaboration and Competition. I would like to bring up a third construct that's needed in order to harness the power: Rewards and Incentives.
We live in a capitalistic, merit and goal-oriented society; rewards and incentives play a very big role in productivity and the ability for an organization to effectively orient itself in a particular trajectory. Let's think about the collective intelligence of employees with each of these three ideas in mind.


Idea No. 1: Collaboration

One phrase: The Internet. Obviously, this is 2010, not 1999 with the dot-com bubble around us. With the BlackBerry, iPhone and 24/7 access to the Internet, any collaboration solution not only has to be Internet/Intranet accessible but in real time-no lags or delays. Collaboration has to take into account multiple communication models: Web, e-mail and smartphones. This is the age of 140-character Twitter tweets and instant Facebook updates-not mail order catalogs.

If we are going to set up a collaborative system for employees to succeed, any collaboration initiative has to take into consideration the interconnected nature of the real-time Web. The real-time Web enables ideas to spread virally and at warp speeds-if they are good. It has the ability to propel good ideas independent of rank or structure and has a great democratizing effect.

Throw away those once-a-year "Employee Listening Surveys" and put a system together for your greatest intellectual asset to realize its potential-in real time, daily, 24/7. Surveys are one-time, single-minded and do not lend to any form of collaboration. Keep the flow of ideas in real time and on-demand. While some of you may shake your head on my clich??¬ęd use of the "real time" and "on-demand" terms, I have seen firsthand how very large organizations have been able to pivot themselves by making an effort to map these terms to their reality of day-to-day operations.


Idea No. 2: Competition

They say competition breeds excellence. Probably true. The entire premise of our capitalistic economy is based on that. Competition drives us to dig deeper for our eternal search for enhancing our productivity. Competition brings about the inner mojo in us to strive to attain the "un-obvious" and to think harder than the next guy, to strive harder to close the deal. I know from personal experience that competition makes me think about everything I do and try harder and smarter; it's a drive that comes from deep inside. It pumps adrenalin into my veins when I look at my competitors (and endorphin when I succeed).

Competition can be at times destructive-if we make winning the sole focus of an exercise and allow for noneffective rules and shortcuts. History has taught us that intensely competitive environments attract people who will take shortcuts. This is a fact of the moral fiber of our species. Accept it, acknowledge it and deal with it. However the cumulative effects of competition have been thoroughly proven to increase overall effectiveness. See capitalism versus socialism.

The challenge we face is to bring about a system of competition of ideas and engagement within our employee base and peers that is not destructive. Having clear rules of the road is a great start to making sure that mass-employee collaboration initiatives do not spiral out of hand. Having an equal focus on collaboration as much as on winning also tempers our innate need for being number one-you can win in multiple ways. As an organization, you are not necessarily looking for a needle in a haystack; you are building a better barn.

Rewards and Incentives

Idea No. 3: Rewards and Incentives

We all, at the end of the day, go home, kiss our kids goodnight, pay our mortgages and go to sleep. Being a dad of two young daughters, I am very well aware of the innate need for me to provide for my daughters, and leave them a better life and better opportunities than I received growing up. This comes from our obviously Darwinian need to provide for the propagation of our ideas and values. I specifically mentioned mortgages as a metaphor for financial well-being-seemed like the right thing given our current economic crisis as a country.

Now it only makes sense, if you truly believe that employees are your single greatest asset, you would reward and compensate them accordingly for their intellect, ideas and their ability to contribute to the organization's success. I see too many initiatives where companies are literally too stingy to share in the rewards with the employees. This is extremely shortsighted and definitely will not encourage participation and collaboration.

If the fundamental premise of your organization's current practice of "ideas bubbling to the top" already works, stop reading this and consider yourself OK. If, however, you are even remotely interested in trying new ideas to democratize the notion of employee engagement, then collective intelligence's two components of Participation and Collaboration, coupled with Rewards and Incentives, should be an important pillar in your strategy to get the output you are looking for from your workforce.

Vivek Bhaskaran is the founding member, President and CEO of Survey Analytics. Vivek plays a key role in defining the company strategy, and is responsible for all aspects of company strategy and direction. Vivek completed his primary education in India before moving to Russia and then to the United States. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Brigham Young University, Utah. You can friend him at, follow him on Twitter at @vivek1105 or e-mail him at

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