We're in the midst of a transformation in how businesses are organized. Typical corporate hierarchies are starting to look overrated, and changes in coordination technology have the power to make work and innovation even more democratic. However, according to MIT organizational theorist Thomas Malone, most of us are still victims of a centralized mindset, the idea that in order to manage things it’s best to put somebody in charge who gives orders to other people. He urges us to look at the many new ways of organizing that allow more people to have more involvement in decisions--and for better results.
"Most people don't begin to realize how important and how pervasive and, in many cases, how desirable those new ways of organizing are going to be," said Malone, Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and the Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, in a conversation with MIT Sloan Management Review Editor-in-Chief, Michael S. Hopkins. "At the Center, we are looking at how people and computers can be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any one person, group, or computer has acted before." When taken seriously, this question leads to a view of organizational effectiveness that is very different from the prevailing wisdom of the past.
The new paradox of power: Give it to gain it
The most rapidly evolving kinds of "collective intelligence"--a phenomenon where a shared or group intelligence emerges from the collaboration and/or competition of many individuals--are those enabled by the Internet. Wikipedia and YouTube are the best-known examples of collective intelligence. Similarly, InnoCentive is a web community that outsources companies’ research problems and invites answers from anyone who wants to contribute, awarding a handful to cash prizes to the best of the bunch. And at MIT, the Climate CoLab uses crowdsourcing to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people all over the world in an attempt to solve the problems of climate change.
These design patterns presented in technology-enabled collective intelligence is also represented more generally in the shift from traditional hierarchies to flatter organizational structures. For years, pockets of the U.S. military have been slowly taking decisions out of the hands of high-ranking commanders and entrusting them to teams of soldiers, who are told what problems to solve but not how to solve them. And last year, Zappos adopted a controversial flat organizational structure referred to as “holacracy.” By order of CEO Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its organizational hierarchy and instead adopted a radical new system of self-governance. Automattic, the firm behind WordPress, only employs a couple hundred people, who all work remotely, with a highly autonomous flat management structure. GitHub is another highly successful firm with a similar structure.
Malone's book from 2004, The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life, proposed that in an increasingly networked world, strict hierarchies would be less viable. The book also foreshadowed the decentralized “bottom-up” management model that has influenced companies like Zappos.
Another example of collective intelligence at its best is apparent in a different kind of workforce altogether--that of honeybees. As revealed by the research of Thomas Seeley at Cornell University, honeybees select the very best site at least 80% of the time--without the influence of the queen bee. By working together as a unified system, the organization (bee colony) is able to amplify its intelligence well beyond the capacity of any individual member of the group. And they do this with no bosses or workers--with no hierarchy at all.
Louis Rosenberg is CEO of Unanimous A.I., a "swarm intelligence company" that develops technologies for collective intelligence that allow groups to combine their thoughts and feelings in real-time, to answer questions, make decisions, or just have fun. Like Malone, he believes that if there are ways for companies to make smarter decisions, it’s worth understanding them and exploring if new technologies can help us implement such methods.