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

Collective-intelligence tools can shepherd the best and brightest ideas and turn them into huge bonanzas

When it comes to solving pressing business problems, the conventional wisdom is that two heads are better than one. With the advent of collective-intelligence tools, enterprises are realizing that thousands of heads are even better still.

Take Pfizer and AT&T, for example.

One of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Pfizer Inc. knows that the best solutions to its business problems don't always come from the researchers on the front lines, says Rob Spencer, a senior research fellow at the New York-based company.

Often someone in another department or another country could hold the missing piece to a particular puzzle, he says. That's why Pfizer wanted to figure out how to tap into the collective intelligence of its 86,000 employees to address its business challenges, says Spencer.

To do that, Pfizer turned to Idea Central, a tool built on IBM Lotus Domino and developed by Boston-based Imaginatik PLC. Imaginatik customized its Idea Central for Pfizer, which then dubbed it the Pfizer Idea Farm.

The software-as-a-service platform gives Pfizer employees a vehicle for submitting ideas for new products or process improvements, according to Spencer, noting that it has saved the company $20 million while helping to solve hundreds of business problems.

For its part, AT&T Inc. is using an "innovation management" platform to provide a forum for its employees to share information and ideas on how to improve products and services, according to Patrick Asher, innovation leader at AT&T. The forum is open to all managers globally, and the company is starting to build prototypes based on some of the ideas that have been proposed, but "we're not ready to talk about those yet," Asher says.

The system features innovation software from Pleasanton, Calif.-based Spigit running on AT&T's own infrastructure, Asher says. Currently the program is open to the telecommunications company's 120,000 management personnel, but AT&T is on the verge of opening it up to non-management staffers as well.

Different definitions

So, what exactly is this thing called collective intelligence?

MIT's Rob Laubacher
MIT's Rob Laubacher says his research team is looking into how people and computers can be connected so that, collectively, they can be more intelligent than can any individual.

"The definition we like to use is 'people and computers connected in ways that seem intelligent,'" says Rob Laubacher, acting executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which brings together faculty from across MIT to conduct research on how new communications technologies are changing the way people work together.

The MIT researchers are trying to understand how to take advantage of collective intelligence to use it for things such as organizational effectiveness, organizational productivity, profitability and teamwork, he says.

"Our basic research question is: How can people and computers be connected so that --collectively -- they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups or computers have ever done before?" Laubacher adds.

One of the center's major findings is described in a paper that's scheduled to be published in the March 2010 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review.

For the paper, researchers at the center gathered nearly 250 examples of Web-enabled collective intelligence, including Google, Wikipedia and Threadless, a unit of SkinnyCorp LLC that harnesses the brainpower and creativity of a community of over 500,000 people to design and select T-shirts that are then sold on the Web. The striking thing about the collection of ventures studied is its diversity, the paper says, noting that the examples exhibit a wildly varied array of purposes and methods.

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