Group intellectual activities take place on many different scales. I frame the issue narrowly in order to make the discussion as concrete as possible. Perhaps later these constraints can be relaxed and the concept extended to a broader range of groups.
The discussion is limited to intellectual groups that are building some type of concrete conceptual object, such as a technical report, a marketing plan, a computer system, a legislative bill, or an airplane design. Excluded from the discussion, then, are groups that are primarily social, those carrying out manual tasks, or collaborations that produce aesthetic objects.
The discussion is limited to groups that range in size from three to four individuals to a handful of such groups working together on a single project. Excluded, then, are two-person collaborations that often have highly personal dynamics that don't extend to larger groups and, at the other extreme, projects that involve hundreds or even thousands of people. However, within this band of 3-30 people we can consider many of the problems encountered by groups of all sizes as well as the first extrapolation from a single group to a collection of groups.
Third, the discussion is limited to groups working on tasks that last from several weeks to several years. Durations within this range are long enough to raise problems of conceptual coordination and integration of ideas and materials, yet they are sufficiently bounded that the work is not viewed as ongoing and the group becomes institutionalized or bureaucratic in its operations.
Fourth, I distinguish between collaborationand cooperation. Collaboration carries with it the expectation of a singular purpose and a seamless integration of the parts, as if the conceptual object were produced by a single good mind. For example, a well-done collaborative document has a clear purpose or message. The reader is unable to tell from internal cues which chapters or sections were written by which authors. The sections are also consistent with one another, and one section shows appropriate awareness of the contents of the other sections.
Cooperative work is less stringent in its demands for intellectual integration. It requires that the individuals that comprise a group or, for larger projects, a set of groups carry out their individual tasks in accord with some larger plan. However, in a cooperative structure, the different individuals or groups are not required to know what goes on in the other parts of the project, so long as they carry out their own assigned tasks satisfactorily.
For example, the various teams of biologists that are currently mapping the human genome normally concentrate their research on a single chromosome or portion of a chromosome (DHHS, 1990). Although it could be advantageous, one team does not necessarily have to monitor work going on in other portions of the DNA structure in order to achieve its goals, nor is one team required to reconcile its methods and results with those of other groups. Such integration may eventually come - indeed, we see glimpses of this as newly articulated genes are mapped against various diseases and abnormalities. But, for now, although work within groups may be collaborative, work among groups in this field is more separate and diverse, albeit still cooperative.
I make this distinction between cooperation and collaboration to further limit the discussion. It seems to me far easier to imagine a concept of collective intelligence existing within a collaborative project than in one that is cooperative. Indeed, I suggest that collective intelligence is a requirement for effective collaboration, at least as a goal or boundary condition. Consequently, I limit the rest of this discussion to collaborative groups.
To summarize the constraints outlined so far, I examine a concept of collective intelligence by considering how collaborative groups ranging in size from 3 to 30 individuals working together for periods of several weeks to several years can produce an intellectual product that represents accomplishment of the groupÕs main goal so that the product has the characteristics we would expect had it been produced by a single good mind.
I make one final assumption. The discussion is constrained to collaborative groups that use a computer and communication system as an integral part of their work. A requirement for collective intelligence is achieving a critical level of coherence in the work of the group. Although I admit the possibility in the abstract that a group might achieve this level of coherence without using a computer system, I cannot personally envision how large groups could coordinate their efforts and integrate the products develop by their individual members to the degree required for CI without such a system. Thus, I assume that CI is a form of intellectual behavior that is at least partially enabled by the technology. Later, when we understand the phenomenon better, it may be possible to relax this constraint and observe or develop CI in groups working without computer assistance.
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