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Tap the wisdom of employees -- and boost the bottom line

By Linda Rosencrance
February 24, 2010 06:00 AM ET

But after studying the various initiatives in depth, the researchers identified a relatively small set of building blocks, or what they call "genes," that are combined and recombined in various ways in different collective-intelligence systems, according to the paper. For example, reliance on the "crowd gene" is a central feature of Web-enabled collective-intelligence systems, according to the paper. In fact, all of the examples the researchers studied included at least one instance of the crowd gene -- they all involve at least one task that anyone is welcome to participate in, according to the paper.

"There is still much work to be done to identify all the different genes for collective intelligence, the conditions under which these genes are useful, and the constraints governing how they can be combined. But we believe the genetic framework described here provides a useful start," the researchers say in the paper.

With this framework, managers can do more than just look at examples and hope for inspiration. Instead, for each key activity to be performed, managers can systematically consider many possible combinations of ways to generate new ideas.

Although this approach doesn't guarantee the development of brilliant new ideas, MIT researchers say it does increase the chances that organizations can begin to take advantage of the collaborative possibilities already demonstrated by systems like Google and Wikipedia.

Related to crowdsourcing

Collective intelligence is linked to crowdsourcing -- the idea that you can gain more wisdom from crowds of people than you can from one person or small groups of people, according to Chris Andrews, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

But there's also another definition of collective intelligence.

"Collective intelligence is collecting information about what lots of people are doing and using that information to help produce better decisions for your interactions with customers," says Susan Aldrich, an analyst at the Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group.

Houston-based Sun & Ski Sports is harnessing the collective intelligence of its customers to provide good product recommendations for first-time visitors to its Web site, says Scott Blair, director of e-commerce at the outdoor sporting goods retailer. (See sidebar, right.)

The concept of collective intelligence was foreign to people even just a decade ago, says Forrester's Andrews. But the Internet has made the concept much more accessible and much easier to apply, he adds.

"The market for innovation management tools is still developing and is therefore amorphous, but we expect this market to steadily evolve and mature -- driven by strong corporate demand," says another Forrester analyst, Chris Townsend, in a report. In his paper, Townsend quotes a 2008 IBM report that says 93% of 1,130 senior business executives from around the world cited innovation as a top strategic priority.

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