MIT Sloan’s Thomas W. Malone, author of The Future of Work, on how the smartest companies will use emerging technology to tap the power of collective intelligence

Thomas W. Malone, professor of management, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Most of us are still victims of what my colleague in the Media Lab, Mitch Resnick, calls the ‘centralized mindset,’” says organization thinker Thomas W. Malone: that to manage things, it’s best to put somebody in charge, make somebody responsible, have somebody giving orders to other people.

But businesses and organizations are emerging that turn that idea around. Wikipedia and YouTube are the best-known examples of “collective intelligence,” where many people create a lot of different things independently. 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.

Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, has been thinking about outsourcing the non-core functions in companies and the use of intelligent agents for commerce for over 25 years. Through the Center for Collective Intelligence, he’s working to track the “genes,” or design patterns, of companies that are effectively using collective intelligence to innovate, and figure out how those patterns can be replicated best in other companies.

In a conversation with MIT Sloan Management Review editor-in-chief Michael S. Hopkins, Malone talks about the changes being brought on by advances in what he calls “coordination technology,” the new “paradox of power”: the idea that sometimes the best way to gain power is to give it away.

The Leading Question

How is collective intelligence driving innovation?

  • Extreme examples of collective intelligence such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and InnoCentive have “genes,” or design patterns, that can be replicated in other companies.
  • The benefits of having people make decentralized decisions are most acute in high tech, R&D-oriented industries that need motivated, inventive, flexible staff.
  • Companies built around collective intelligence require leaders who are willing to give up power.

So much has been made of the ways that technology has evolved–computation, storage, communication, and now instrumentation—and how it has completely changed what companies can know. As a close observer of all this, do you see executives keeping up?

Well, sure, executives and everybody else knows about the new kinds of technologies that keep popping up.

5 Comments On: A Billion Brains are Better Than One

  • tgriffith | March 24, 2010

    Enjoyed seeing this in combination with Clive Thompson’s article in Wired Agree that we need to learn how to recognize our opportunities and how to make solid decisions around organizational design and technology choices. More on the topic here:

  • licofindiainsurance | May 9, 2010

    Very informative video.

  • Laurent Blondeau (evidencesx) | May 18, 2010

    I think there’s some kind of emergency of changing HR reflex, management learning and behaviours, while our times are changing, and the next generation so. And in their working positions too. Diversity, innovation groups, collective thoughts are so strong tools to progress and burst old ideas…We’re facing the new leadership trend, and companies have to adapt them, if they want to recruit and keep key competences.
    Tried to put some ideas in order, in my personal blog, feel free to comment at

    Thanks for post and video, very useful facts.

  • Siswanto Gatot | July 7, 2011

    yes, I absolutely agree. collective skill is more than individual skill. every person has its own capacity, if they blend together under strong leadership, everything will be possible

  • Steve Roberts | September 11, 2011

    This type of open-source model has worked very successfully in some technology applications. But for the model to work the contributors must have a strong motivation to be part of the stakeholder community.

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