Collective Intelligence and Collective Wisdom

“Change” has been the big topic of conversation for some time now. For the most part, the change that everyone writes about and talks about is economic change. There has been much written about the change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and there has been much written about the movement of manufacturing jobs off shore, but I want to concentrate on another kind of change. Willis Harman wrote a whole book about it in 1987 entitled, “Global Mind Change.” To paraphrase a line in this book, society’s experience shapes it’s science and science shapes the experience of it’s society.

We have been educated to assume that our scientific view of reality is correct. Harman suggests that there may be other views of reality that are complementary. He continues by proposing a reunion of science and metaphysics. He states, “The fundamental change that we are suggesting is happening in Western society can be put in terms of these metaphysics. Essentially, it is a shift of dominant metaphysic from M-1 to M-3.”


M-1. The basic stuff of the universe is matter-energy. Consciousness emerges out of matter. Consciousness apart from a living organism is inconceivable.

M-2. Matter-energy and mind-spirit stuff both exist in the universe. Matter-energy stuff is studied with science. Mind-spirit stuff must be studied in other ways.

M-3. Consciousness is the ultimate stuff of the universe and matter-energy comes in some sense out of consciousness.

Margaret Wheatley in her award-winning best seller, “Leadership and the New Science” suggests that, “we let go of the machine model of organizations, and workers as replaceable cogs in the machinery of production, we begin to see ourselves in much richer dimensions, to appreciate our wholeness, and, hopefully, to design organizations that honor and make use of the great gift of who we humans are.” She believes that ownership is essential and suggests that ownership is not only literal owners, but describes personal connections to the organization that inspire people to contribute. Participation in the development of a plan of action creates ownership. In fact, we participate in the creation of everything we observe. In a sense, we are owners of everything we observe.

We have all seen the progression where raw data when properly analyzed and organized becomes information. Information in turn is the basis of intelligence and intelligence the basis of wisdom. Historically, management has worked to control information. Wheatley uses scientific support to suggest that for a system to remain alive, it must have a steady flow of new information.

Much has been written about the fact that information is exploding. We know that more information was produced between 1965 and 1995 than in the preceding 5000 years and that knowledge is now doubling every 5 years. Technology certainly has fostered the explosion, but it has also made this information available to more people as well. It is no longer practical to use a traditional building block approach to information. We need what is described in quantum physics as relational holism.

Wheatley suggests that the new science reminds us that this is a participative universe and that nothing living lives alone. We are constantly called to be in a relationship and through relationships we co-create our world. With that in mind, we make systems stronger by connecting to more of itself. Webs and networks are stronger than single connections. Participation is the key.

The May-July 2004 issue of “What is Enlightenment” has some incredible articles about collective intelligence. In an article entitled, “The Science of Collective Consciousness” Robert Kenny provides strong evidence that collective consciousness exists and can be used to produce benefits. Another great article entitled, “Come Together” by Craig Hamilton, reports, “Call it collective consciousness, team synergy, co-intelligence or group mind – a growing number of people are discovering through their own experience that wholes are indeed far more than the sum of their parts; that when individuals come together with a shared intention, in a conducive environment, something mysterious can come into being, with capacities and intelligences that far transcend those of the individuals involved.”

While we may not yet be able to exactly define collective wisdom or how it works, it is working. There are a bunch of collective intelligence initiatives underway including: World Café, Laboratory for Social Intervention, Open Space Technology, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, Dynamic Facilitation, Deep Dialogue, Appreciative Inquiry, Global Leadership Initiative and others. This is not the product of some well-meaning, goody-goody types, but rather the output of some of the most influential organizational minds in the world.

My own experience using World Café, Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry to address complex and chaotic situations from a holistic approach has convinced me that collective intelligence and in turn collective wisdom are real and offer incredible potential for all organizations in this time of information overload and complexity.

Bob Cannon/The Cannon Advantage, 2003.