We've all seen it. We've all experienced it. Most likely, we were in a group, a small team, or in some form of workshop. Maybe there was a little conflict. Two people looking at the same problem from different perspectives. They realize that they're both right but also wrong; from their perspective, they can only see part of the picture. Then the lightbulb goes on. The magic happens. Now they can see the full picture, they can solve that problem in a new way. A new way that neither had considered before.
That's the power of "collective intelligence".
In the early 2000s, researchers and software engineers started experimenting with idea management and social business applications to create practical ways to engage large groups of people in a meaningful way, not just for fun but to solve problems and create new things. Online collective intelligence processes were born, and the idea management software that supports them. Suddenly, organizations were harnessing the intelligence of individuals in different locations on the same problem or opportunity, no longer restricted to location or time zone.
In 2022, there are thousands of online collective intelligence programs around the world. Commercial organizations, Governments, NGOs, and Communities. All engaging with relevant stakeholders on key topics that are important to them, innovating the way we work and live, helping us move towards UN Sustainable Development Goals, reducing risks, and saving money.
Now that we have this new approach, it's a good idea to ask ourselves:
What problems are we not thinking about? What else could we do with this new tool?
We're starting to see online collective intelligence principles applied to complex networks.
What is a complex network?
Complex networks, or partner ecosystems, are groups, people, or organizations coming together with a common aim. Perhaps they work together for just a short period, perhaps for decades or more.
Think about how a bridge comes into being: There are government agencies, planners, project managers, material providers, consultants, architects, specialist sub-contractors, and the list goes on. They all come together with a common goal: To build a new bridge. And they all need to interact on different levels and depend on others to keep their deadlines.
Complex networks surround us, we experience them all the time. But they don't typically take advantage of modern, scaled-up collective intelligence programs.
But could they? What would be the benefits? Are there problems we're not thinking about?
How do complex networks operate?
There's an approach called 'collective impact' to establish social change. It's a structure that offers us a framework to help a complex network work together for society's benefit. It's been proven effective across a wide range of projects, sometimes by design, sometimes by trial and error. It has five core components:
- A shared vision. There needs to be a common definition of the problem and a forum for discussing differences. Unless everyone has the same goal, the network isn't going to be effective.
- Shared measurement systems. How will progress be measured and reported? There needs to be regular reporting to keep everyone on board. Transparency across the group helps each party keep the others accountable.
- Mutually reinforcing activities. Each party needs to play to their strengths. They need to understand the role of others and be able to see their work.
- Continuous Communication. The channels of communication must always be kept open. Trust will build, and a common vocabulary will emerge.
- A backbone support organization. Responsible for coordination and dedicated staff who can plan, organize, coordinate, measure, and report. They can support effective decision-making.
You'll recognize that these structures exist in all effective complex networks, whether that's delivering aid to a drought-ridden country or building a new bridge. Scaled-up collective intelligence programs and methods like collective impact give us the tools to tackle new challenges that most people aren't thinking about. Let's consider that bridge example once more. Let's think about how it operates and what problems a multi-year, complex project may face over its development.
Individuals drop in and out of the program over time as needs change. Taking people away from their day job is expensive and slows the project. Delays can cause overruns and payment penalties. Being able to meet changing needs depends on tapping into the complex network on demand. How are these challenges dealt with today? Formal project management is the answer.
Is this still the best way nowadays? Since today we know how to supercharge a network and take location and availability out of the equation, perhaps now is the time to start solving these problems.
How to supercharge complex networks?
We could supercharge existing approaches to dealing with complex networks by supporting the entire network with online collaborative tools. We can speed up interactions, ensure the right people are involved in every discussion, no matter their location or availability.
Imagine supporting a significant infrastructure project where the project team:
- Could tap into any combination of stakeholders on demand.
- Tap into the collective insight of people as they participate using their mobile device while people continue with their day job.
- Manage separate, short, focused online campaigns to different audiences that address key challenges — in parallel, secure, and separate from each other.
- Use online micro campaigns to: Share solutions & best practices, identify skills, mitigate risks, improve safety issues, reduce costs, gain feedback etc.
- Dynamic problem-solving to rapidly address a new issue without taking people away from their core role.
- Reach deep into contractors' organizations, beyond those allocated to the program.
- Include the client to test new solutions and gain feedback.
- Support the entire network using a modern collective intelligence platform to record every interaction and build up a knowledge base that can be exploited at any time.
If we focus on speed and effectiveness, improved program outcomes will follow, and everyone benefits. By addressing what slows down complex networks and reduces their effectiveness, we can supercharge what’s already there and working well.
How to solve the sustainability challenge with complex networks?
The challenges in transforming the economy into a sustainable system seem endless. Commercial organizations are wrestling with the issues of keeping a business viable while still preparing for the future and becoming a sustainable enterprise.
They're considering topics as diverse as reducing and removing waste, reducing and removing emissions, finding new suppliers that can support the next generation of their business, and raising awareness with current suppliers that their needs are changing. They're listening to customers and trying to understand what impact sustainability changes in regulation will have on their organization. Not to mention changing decision-making processes and the fact that new and natural conflicts emerge as substantial transformation needs to happen.
Change is too slow, and that's before we think about the ripple effect that this change creates throughout a value chain. When a consumer demands a more sustainable product, the FMCG company not only needs to consider materials, packaging, and waste but also logistics and how they want to deliver the product to their customers? What's the ripple effect of making a change? A plethora of suppliers suddenly need to change what they sell, and then their suppliers also need to change, and so on, and so forth. To create a tangible impact on the environment, that chain, change happening link by link, is far too slow.
A systematic use of collective intelligence tools like HYPE Ideation and collective impact methods to structure the complex networks of the economy is the best answer to the challenge. To be a bit more specific: Imagine supporting an organization's whole value chain with an online collective intelligence program:
- Tap into changing customer needs immediately.
- Identify what internal knowledge already exists to support a change in the offering.
- Discover what is already available from existing suppliers.
- Brief suppliers on likely changes before they become urgent.
- Identify new technology providers that support the inevitable transformation in the business.
- Put in place structures to help resolve conflicts and create uniform decision-making structures.
The same opportunities apply to governments and NGOs interacting with each other and partner ecosystems.
Closing remarks: It's time to supercharge complex networks
Times have changed. We now have the tools and methods we need to look again at how we solve some of our most complex and challenging needs as a society. Scaled-up collective intelligence programs are proven over thousands of organizations and communities. No longer does this expertise need to be restricted to the specialist fields of innovation management, innovation strategy, and idea management.
Furthermore, collective impact programs are proven to be effective ways to bring a network together. Today, we know how we can do better. We now need to look at the orthodoxies that have simply grown because we didn't have a better way. We can question the how and the why, knowing some approaches can help speed up change, create a more significant impact and make networks work better than ever before. We can go beyond the individual intelligence and experience of a project manager. We can harness collective intelligence, at scale, to make many things change faster.