Group Chemistry

An old friend, Thomas Malone, has been doing some fundamental research with colleagues at MIT on the ‘genetic’ makeup of collective intelligence:

Megan Garber, MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups

[…] where Professor Malone’s ideas get especially interesting from the Lab’s perspective is […] the notion that groups have, in their structural elements, a kind of dynamic DNA. Malone and his colleagues — in this case, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas — are essentially trying to map the genome of human collectivity, the underlying structure that determines groups’ outcomes. The researchers break the “genes” of groups down to interactions among four basic (and familiar) categories: what, who, why, and how. Or, put another way: what the project is, who’s working to enact it, why they’re working to enact it, and what methods they’re using to enact it. (So the “genetic structure” of the Linux community, for example, breaks down to relationship among the what of creating new tools and shaping existing ones; the who of the crowd combined with Linus Torvalds, and his lieutenants; the why of love, glory, and, to an extent, financial gain; and the how of both collaboration and hierarchical ordering. The interplay among all those factors determines the community’s outward expression and outcomes.)

That all seems simple and obvious — because it is — but what makes the approach so interesting and valuable from the future-of-news perspective is, among other things, its disaggregation of project and method and intention. Groups form for all kinds of reasons, but we generally pay little attention to the discrete factors that lead them to form and flourish. Just as understanding humans’ genetic code can lead us to a molecular understanding of ourselves as individuals, mapping the genome of groups may help us understand ourselves as we behave within a broader collective.

And that knowledge, just as with the human genome, might help us gain an ability to manipulate group structures. When it comes to individuals, intelligence is measurable — and, thus, it has a predictive element: A smart kid will most likely become a smart adult, with all the attendant implications. Individual intelligence is fairly constant, and, in that, almost impossible to change. Group intelligence, though, Malone’s findings suggest, can be manipulated — and so, if you understand what makes groups smart, you can adjust their factors to make them even smarter. The age-old question in sociology is whether groups are somehow different, and greater, than the sum of their parts. And the answer, based on Malone’s and other findings, seems to be “yes.” The trick now is figuring out why that’s so, and how the mechanics of the collective may be put to productive use. Measuring group intelligence, in other words, is the first step in increasing group intelligence.

Malone and his colleagues have identified 16 “genes” so far, as expressed in groups like Wikipedia contributors, YouTube uploaders, and eBay auctioneers. “We don’t believe this is the end, by any means, but we think it’s a start,” he said — a way to rethink, and perhaps even revolutionize, the design of groups. Organizational design theory in the 20th century, he noted, generally focused on traditional, hierarchical corporations. But as digital tools give way to new kinds of collectives, “it seems to me,” the professor said, that “it’s time to update organizational design theory for these new organizations.”

Obviously, any understanding of group performance is of paramount importance for business. Just as important as tactics to get a few percentage points of performance out of traditional groups in business is Malone and company’s research into the way that groups spontaneous come together and form productive collectives, and that they have different characteristics based on these genetic analogs.

I think Malone should come up with a different term for these ‘genes’ though, since they aren’t really genes: they are an emergent property of the assembled collective: more like the way that crystals form based on the chemistry of minerals interaction or the geometry of the atoms involved.

We talk about group chemistry, so perhaps groups form very different sorts of crystals based on the internal geometry of the collective’s original formation?

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