I interviewed Rod Collins who discussed How Collective Learning is the Essence of True Organizational Learning.
It’s great to speak with you again, Rod. I’m looking forward to hearing your views on the topic of how collective learning is the essence of true organizational learning. My first question is: What is collective learning and how is it different from other kinds of learning?
Dustin, good to be with you again. Collective learning is at the heart of the new emerging management model. When you look at companies such as Google and Gore and Valve, Zappos, some of the best-known companies, if you look closely at them, you notice that they are organized as networks and, as such, are organized to leverage their collective intelligence. This is in contrast to traditional organizations, which are primarily designed to leverage individual intelligence. That’s why, in hierarchies, we build top-down structures and give people command-and-control authority, so the smartest individuals wind up giving directions to everyone else. The new networked organizations see intelligence very, very differently. I think they realize that our highest form of intelligence is really collective intelligence, and this is where we’re able to aggregate all the thinking of the full diversity of the people involved in the organizations. By aggregating that, we’re able to come up with a higher level of knowledge than any one of us can come up with individually.
Let me give you an example of where that happened recently. There was biomolecular problem that was causing a lot of difficulty. The world’s best scientists had been working on it for ten years, and, despite that, they couldn’t crack this puzzle problem they had. There was a professor at the University of Washington who had an online group called Foldit. He threw the problem out to that global community, and they solved the problem in ten days. I think that shows the power of collective intelligence.
When organizations have processes where they’re able to collate the collective intelligence within their organizations, this gives them an incredible asset when it comes to speed. The primary difference between collective and individual learning is: Individual learning is what we learn to do in schools. It’s the idea that we gather knowledge and we become masters of it on an individual basis, whereas collective learning is based on the idea that we continually combine the different information we all have, and, in so doing, we’re able to create a level of learning that is actually greater than the sum of parts.
Does collective learning mean that we erase the individual from the equation?
That’s a great question and, no, not at all. It’s not a question of either-or; it’s a question of both-and. It’s also a recognition that collective learning oftentimes achieves a higher level of result than individual learning by itself. However, collective learning is most powerful when we’re bringing together the intelligence of highly intelligent, smart individuals.
This point was especially made by James Surowiecki, who wrote a book called The Wisdom of Crowds. What he focused on in that book is how, oftentimes, collective intelligence works much better than relying upon the intelligence of a single individual to plot a course of action or to make a decision. He’s very careful to point out that in order to get collective learning and contrasting it, if you will, to group think, there are four conditions that are very important.
The first is: You need diversity of opinion. The second is: You need independent thinking; people have to be free to express what they think. You have to have a lot of local knowledge, so a lot of individual intelligence and local factors—be they knowledge about customers, a knowledge about business processes—is critical to the process. Finally, you need an aggregation mechanism to pull it all together. Clearly, individual intelligence is an important component if we want to get to a high order of collective intelligence.
Can you be both an individual and also be part of a collective?
Yes, yes. In putting together and processing collective intelligence, you want individuals to have the freedom to express the intelligence they have. Oftentimes, I think particularly highly intelligent individuals really come to value the collective-learning process because, as a result of it, not only do they get to contribute their individual knowledge, but by experiencing and helping to craft a collective-learning solution, they’re also expanding their own individual intelligence even more.
My last question is: What’s the difference between cooperation and collaboration?
This was a point that Jane McGonigal focused in on. She wrote this wonderful book called Reality is Broken. I think a lot of times, especially those who come from traditional management backgrounds, they often perceive collaboration as just another term for cooperation. McGonigal points out that collaboration is really much deeper and broader than mere cooperation.
She defines collaboration as the intersection of three factors, one of which is cooperation. Cooperation is the attitude of “I’m going to work more effectively with other people.” She also points out that in addition to cooperation, another element is coordination. While cooperation is the attitude of “I’ll work with you,” coordination is the specific processes of coming together and do the cooperation.
She says there’s a third element, and this is what really distinguishes collaboration from simple cooperation. The third element is cocreation. She makes the point, without cocreation, you can’t have collaboration. This is, again, why networks leveraging collective intelligence are so important. Collective intelligence is, by definition, a form of cocreation.
The problem with traditional organizations and their reliance mainly on coordination and cooperation is, what they’re really looking for in those two dimensions is that people will get on the same page, they’ll fall in line with the company directions and become good followers. In traditional organization, which is leveraging the individual intelligence, if you will, of the managers, there is not only not an expectation of cocreation, but, oftentimes, the organizational processes are designed so that cocreation is impossible, because it’s not seen as a need. Creating is something that is essentially happening at the upper echelons, and there’s no need for that to go out in the lower levels of the organization.
Truly collaborative enterprises see it very differently. They see that cocreation by all people involved within the organization will lead to a situation where the organization is more likely to achieve a higher level of results faster and more quickly. You can see from that, because of this element of cocreation, collaboration is fundamentally different from mere cooperation.
Thanks again for sharing today, Rod, and I hope we can continue to do our own collective learning with this blog and continue to evolve our discussions.
Dustin, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.
About Rod Collins
Author, Speaker, and Innovation & Organizational Design Expert at Optimity Advisors