Are ‘Superminds’ the Next Step in Tech Disruption?

By: | August 2, 2019 • 4 min read
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He can be emailed at [email protected]

I’m wondering when we will start seeing the arrival of intelligent tools that make work better. There are tons of really interesting experiments by vendors who aim to improve current workflows. They tackle assessment, recruiting, workforce planning, benefits administration, performance management, nudging, communications, learning, coaching, network mapping and employee sentiment. Above all, they are designed to gather and report data, save time, improve compliance and cut costs.

The future is going to be pretty boring if it’s just a faster, cheaper, more consistent version of today. It seems to me that the real magic will lie in things we can’t or don’t do today. The real payoff for intelligent tools lies in the things we can’t quite imagine.

I’m hungry for HR technology that inspires me and that aspires to being something other than more of the same. I’d like to see the emphasis on bias reduction and EEO compliance converted into an explosion of opportunity. I can imagine HR tech that understands and helps people maximize their potential.

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Certainly, getting the right people into the right slots regardless of race, gender, neurotype or other targets for discrimination is a critical foundation. Helping companies overcome their collective tendencies to prefer their own monoculture will open strong veins of innovation. It’s the right historical moment to make our organizations open to all contributors, not just a select few. While machines can’t eliminate bias, they can provide us with guardrails that guide us to the next level.

I’ve just finished reading Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together by Thomas W. Malone. He’s an MIT professor and the founding director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. Malone is the author of the original “The Future of Work”—it’s hard to believe that we are still talking about it 15 years after it was published.

I was surprised to discover that there are established mechanisms for measuring the intelligence of groups. Most contemporary psychological assessments are centered on the individual. They produce results designed to judge and categorize people as a way of supplementing other information in the hiring process. The idea that groups could be assessed along the same lines, although it seems obvious in hindsight, was quite an insight.

Malone goes on to extend the idea of assessing group intelligence to include machines as members of human organizations. The basic notion is that group intelligence (or whichever aspect you decide to quantify) should be routinely measured and improved. The object of any addition to or rearrangement of a group ought to be improvement in process, flow and intelligence.

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Collective intelligence has been a quiet goal throughout the evolution of computing. From Douglas Englebart’s famed 1960s “mother of all demos” (Google it) until now, the steady undercurrent is that we are building a global brain. Malone makes that lofty idea more tangible. It’s reasonable, he says, to manage the intelligence of our workgroups, organizations and communities.

It’s refreshing to see the idea of collective intelligence emerge. It got a little lost in the noise accompanying the conversion of your desktop into a vending machine. The consumer-oriented focus on individual transactions has been obscuring a larger truth. Our organizations can do more and be more. They can reach higher, help develop people and organizational potential, and make work better for everyone.

Malone identifies several “species” of supermind:

  • Hierarchies: decisions made by people in charge;
  • Democracies: decisions made by voting;
  • Markets: decisions made by buyers and sellers; and
  • Communities: decisions made by informal consensus or shared norms.

In each case, the defining characteristic is that group members are acting together. Malone’s view is that the future of our organizations is one in which people and machines work together. The question he asks is, “How do you make groups smarter so that they make smarter decisions?”

The next level of development is pretty interesting. Which kind (or combination of kinds) of supermind is best for which kind of decision? This is liable to be a central organizing principle for future companies. Rather than functional responsibilities, work will be organized by decision-making requirements.

This fall, I’ll be hosting three separate sessions at the HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas (Oct 1-Oct. 4). You can expect superminds to be on that agenda. I think it’s a powerful reason for optimism about both the latest technology and the future of work.