Where Is Your Group Intelligence?
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Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,

Where does the competency of your organization reside? How about the culture of your organization - where is that located exactly? Does the answer change if your organization is a 150,000 person global company, a 15,000 person division, a 150 person plant, or a 15-person team? How does your group, however you want to define it, know what to do and how to behave?
   I’m going to suggest an answer that might be uncomfortable at first, but one that just might solve an important corporate identity crises and help us deal with some of the burning decisions of the day. Bear with me as we look at what we know and at what is developing around us - then we’ll look at the implications.
   Look at mobs - not the criminal type - the lynching type or the Fort Lauderdale spring break type. They’re groups, and generally defined by some specific reactive behavior. What we know is that mobs behave differently than you would expect from knowing any of the individuals. Nice people for the most part, but there they went and did that unimaginable thing. Maybe from afar you can imagine it, but only because you’ve seen it so many times and only because it wasn’t your boy or your mother involved in the incident. Whatever they reacted to, we know they didn’t get their response from a procedures manual.
   How about an impromptu jazz ensemble jamming on a magical Saturday. Competent musicians for sure, but something happens when they get together and it isn’t in the sheet music - there isn’t any.
   We know ant colonies as collections of many dumb insects that exhibit effective intelligence as a cooperative group. Hive intelligence is a phrase we use to describe seemingly intelligent behavior from a group of bees. At some early stage in life we all learned that their queens are not telling them what to do, yet some coherent and effective higher-order behavior emerges from this swarm interaction.
   My point about this emergent behavior in groups is not that nobody is in control yet coherent things happen anyway; but rather that the "knowledge" driving the group action is not evident anywhere. How do these groups know how to do what they do?
   Answering this question might help us understand what organizational learning really is. It might help us get a focus on knowledge management. It might unlock the secret of highly effective teams.

Popular management theory often distorts
natural social mechanisms with procedures.

Let’s get something out of the way first. What ever you think about the popular management interest in organizational learning, knowledge management, and teaming, these concepts exist in all groups independent of any attempts to understand or control them. They happen - for better or for worse. Hands down, when they happen for the better, a healthier and stronger organization exists. Popular management theory, however, often distorts natural social mechanisms with attempts to control and predict behavior with linear procedures.
   Remove all but the worker bees or soldier ants from our insect colonies and watch how effective they aren’t. The intelligence of these communities is not manifested in the large numbers, but rather in the interaction and diversity. In the interaction and diversity - not in the individuals. The knowledge that drives the behavior of these organizations cannot be put in a jar, it can’t be captured, yet it clearly exists.
   How can there be knowledge if nobody (or no thing) knows it? Maybe the human brain can shed some light on this. It is composed of billions of neurons, each interacting with a few or hundreds or thousands of others. Each has its own individual behavior of reaction and stimulus. Each of these behaviors was learned from prior interactions, and continues to change and evolve. Though we may say a neuron has memory, we don’t honor that stored information as knowledge, nor attribute intelligence to the behavior of that neuron. The intelligence of our human brain emerges at the highest level - and the knowledge that drives our behavior remains illusive in its precise physical location - other than as a large collection of interacting neurons.
  Now back to our business organization. Individuals in an organization know things we can describe and categorize - this is evident to us. After all, they are us - and we are ego-centric animals. Sort of like one neuron recognizing another but failing to comprehend the larger mind.
   Rather than think about your own organization, think of another, in a completely different area of endeavor. What personality and behavior do you expect from a tobacco company, the state motor vehicle department, the US Congress, MicroSoft...pick your own evil empire - I won’t tell you which one in the list is mine. You know them as an organization that exhibits expected behaviors. But meet an employee socially and chances are you will find someone you can relate to, someone who even agrees with your behavioral assessment but denies any personal responsibility.

When Exon had its Alaska spill problem it wasn’t just the ship’s Captain’s doing. We all know this down deep inside, so do the Exon employees - else we would all be satisfied with the Captain’s firing as a sufficient response. We all know that the catastrophe was caused by many interacting events and procedures and behaviors within a complex system, and that no one individual or procedure was solely responsible. And that no Exon employee wished for this to happen, or was a conscious part of the cause.
   If you were an Exon employee then, no matter in what department, this was a poignant event for you, one that burned itself into your memory - probably even altered the way you thought and behaved in your job function thereafter. But not with consistency throughout the organization: Some departments justifiably felt like victims, some like they could do something to help preclude such events in the future, while others learned how to deal with these things.
   Sort of like the brain again - it has departments in charge of vision and emotion and language and muscles and reasoning and so on - and it is now known that each of these areas in the brain all learn something from most all events we are subjected to - input comes through on all channels simultaneously. How you react when asked to go to aunt Matilda’s house will depend on your recollections of how it smells, what it looks like, how comfortable its seating arrangements are, what you feel about her emotionally, and of course what you reason your duty to be. And the result is usually not what we call an objective, conscious decision - anymore than IBM’s or GM’s failures to respond optimally to strategic direction suggestions.
   Sometimes by shear force of will your reasoning powers can override your true emotional feelings about what you ought to do; but if you don’t have the physical skills or, say, the hand-eye coordination you may not be able to accomplish the task anyway. Just like stodgy legal and purchasing departments can hamstring a good product acquisition or development strategy. There’s also the emotional/logical conflicts that might be compared to the marketing/engineering conflicts - and truth is not owned exclusively by either.
   Learning happens everywhere in the brain and everywhere in the organization - and it results in high level behavior with no one area responsible. Dysfunction occurs when the interaction of these different views and knowledges is too slow, too one sided, or catastrophically non existent.
   "We have met the enemy and he is us". We know what that means; and we give up trying to do anything about it because it defies localized identification and responsibility. Organizations are hard to change because nobody is really in charge - titles, authorities, and egos notwithstanding. You have to reprogram the neurons before a different behavior emerges.
   Auto companies are notoriously paranoid and secretive about what they are doing and how they do things, yet workers and executives switch employers within the auto industry regularly. The really important knowledge doesn’t leave because it’s not in people’s heads - its in the greater group and how it behaves.
   Hitachi is known to take traveling seminars to their competitors to present and discuss early stage concepts and technology - because they know that they learn more from the interaction and diversity than their close-to-the-chest competitors. Knee-jerk thought about what constitutes intellectual property needs revisited.
   So just what is this thing called the learning organization? Without increasing the interaction among the people more training, more schooling, and more experts don’t really do much for the organization. And if what everybody must know is determined and regulated and identical, interaction doesn’t matter much anyway, there’s little diversity of thought.
   So how can you increase the interaction and diversity of thought within your organization/group/team? Moving your operating culture toward collaboration is an important start, toward collaborative learning even better. Actually you can’t have collaboration without learning, otherwise it’s just accommodation, not collaboration - a distinction learned by many the hard way in the recent round of project partnerships sponsored by industrial consortia and government.
   What about speed of interaction? Are your people plugged in to the greater collaborative environment? Can they tap a community of practice for advice and learning? Can you bring together the right minds to advance the organizational knowledge right now? Do they have collaborative access as well as a collaborative skill set and culture...or are you saving money by keeping them away from computers and intranet-wasting time?
   When knowledge management, organizational learning, teaming, and collaborative strategies recognize the greater group intelligence, a formidable enterprise emerges.

1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #048 - Originally Published 12/98 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Your sending of a comment automatically grants us permission to edit and post at our discretion. Send your comment to
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From: compton@midusa.net (Bob Compton), Date: 12 Dec 1998
This writing supports my belief and the work that I've been doing to help organizations develop collaborative relations with all workers. I am very happy to see more work and studies evolve in the area of group intelligence.

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From: dove@parshift.com (Rick Dove), Date: 13 Dec 1998
Bob - In that case you might want to check out what Michael McMaster has to say on the same subject as a Guest Speaker at at http://www.parshift.com/Speakers/Speak011.htm

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From: BrainConnection@a-o.com (Mark Wilcox) Date: Sat, 26 Dec 1998
Approaching the subject from the brain, I have successfully demonstrated your thesis by organizing "whole-brain teams." The output of such teams is easilly 66% higher than "groups of worker ants." 73% to 80% of the whole-brain teams exceed expectations.

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From: dove@parshift.com (Rick Dove), Date: 26 Dec 1998
Mark - I'd love to see the documentation on this. What have you published on your process and comparison metrics? Is it available on the web or by email attachment? If not - will you describe what you do and how you measure the improvemsnt?

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From: BrainConnection@a-o.com (Mark Wilcox), Date: Sat, 28 Dec 1998
Rick - If you give me a fax number I'll send an article about the continuing study we are doing with the Forest Service. Several colleges have used the Herrmann and had similar experiences with professors saying that they are covering 30 - 50% more material in the semester. You may be familiar with the Herrmann (Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument or HBDI), however, I have successfully extracted a second profile we call the Performance Profile, showing one's thinking when they feel they MUST perform. We are just now experimenting with teams formed with the second profile. We anticipate another increase in performance. If you are interested, I would be delighted to talk with you further. Thanks for your VERY well done article.

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From: mccartyr@omrf.ouhsc.edu  (Robbie V. McCarty), Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2000
I read this article as I was searching for professional development in education involving collaborations. I found it delightful to read as well as informative.

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From: valdis@orgnet.com  (Valdis Krebs),  Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2000
Great article! I totally agree... I have been mapping and measuring the emergent networks that support 'group intelligence' for 12 years. The graphic in this article is right on! For examples of knowledge networks in organizations, follow the links on my home page: http://www.orgnet.com

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