Dany Paradis, Senior Vice President Operations
, February 8, 2024
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Two concepts to help your organization thrive across generations

Every organization will experience a turnover in its workforce at some point. For example, a significant proportion of employees aged between 55 and 65 will likely be thinking about retirement. When this happens, it will mean movement among the remaining personnel, evolving responsibilities and, of course, new employees being hired.  

How can an organization promote knowledge transfer and cooperation among the various individuals involved in order to minimize the impact of change on its operations?  

The ability to preserve internal knowledge and insights depends on two key concepts: collective intelligence and collective memory.  

What is collective intelligence?

To define the concept of collective intelligence, I like to quote this proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Collective intelligence therefore favors working in collaboration rather than in isolation. This approach tends to improve the quality of teams because the organization can draw on each person’s skill set, knowledge and ideas in pursuit of a common goal.

To put it another way, team members’ interactions help to grow the organization’s intellectual capacity, enabling it to carry out more complex and unusual tasks and therefore achieve increasingly impressive results.

To allow collective intelligence to work its magic, I like to create small but eclectic teams of 4 to 6 people. I recently put together a team of 4 individuals with very different profiles and backgrounds to work on a particular project. This group featured an extrovert, an introvert, a very logic-driven person and a new employee. I wanted to see what kind of synergy these four would have. And in the end, the work they delivered was simply exceptional! Each person was able to express their thoughts and opinions and contributed to the project in their own way.

The great benefit of collective intelligence is strength in numbers. The multiplication of ideas. The wealth of knowledge of each person and the ability to share it. It’s teamwork.

Of course, collective intelligence requires a shift in the organization’s concept of how it works and what it does. Before employees may be expected to work collaboratively, they must be able to look to the example set by their leadership, management and the organization itself. We will come back to this later. 

What is collective memory?

Meanwhile, I like to think of collective memory as an organization’s legacy. As employees come and go, the organization must be able to transfer knowledge and maintain a sense of belonging among its workforce. The principle is simple: to preserve the expertise, culture and traditions developed within the organization over the years. Like an inheritance passed down from one generation of employees to the next.

An organization’s collective memory includes its unique DNA. What you find at organization A will be different from what you find at organization B. But the common goal is the same: to keep the internal social group strong over the years. How this is achieved may, however, change with the times.  

Let’s take the example of a loyal employee who has been in the job for almost ten, fifteen years. You might say: “He’s been around the block a few times!” Yes, he knows the “block” very well and has witnessed many things happen in his time with the company. He now has to train his replacement to the best of his ability. How can he pass on all his knowledge and experience, as well as the organization’s practices and procedures, to his successor in just a few weeks?

Tricky, right?

But that’s where collective memory comes in. It’s about establishing systems within the organization to ensure practices and expertise can be preserved despite the passage of time. This enables the business to continue operating smoothly when there are absences or departures. But remember, collective intelligence goes far beyond simply documenting processes. Yes, transferring knowledge is important, but passing on the organizational culture may be even more so. It is essential to promote a culture of sharing so that teams are in the habit of documenting their day-to-day operations.

Collective intelligence and collective memory, although different, are complementary and intimately linked concepts. Together, they make organizations... get organized! Let’s take a closer look at what they mean in practice.  

What are the 5 basic rules of collective intelligence?

Although I mentioned this earlier when giving my definition of collective intelligence, I reiterate my point: the concept must originate with the organization’s leaders. To be accepted by the rank and file, management must embrace the concept, commit to it and believe in its success. It is a way of being. Once the leadership is prepared to alter its idea of work in favor of synergy, there are five basic rules to follow in order to foster collective intelligence among employees.

  1. Choose a variety of profiles when creating teams to promote diversity.
  2. Prioritize communication: it’s important to know how to express oneself and, above all, to listen!
  3. Encourage the sharing of ideas and information.
  4. Establish norms to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  5. Assess and analyze progress at various key points in a project (beginning, middle, end).

Ideally, you would start by putting together a team to work on a small short-term project. This would allow you to measure progress and achieve the shared goal quickly.  

Collective intelligence is often used in innovation projects, which can be quite lengthy. To help you really understand this way of working, let me give you a concrete example: a project to design electric batteries. You will need to go through several phases before you can actually hold an electric battery in your hand. In the context of this project, the first step may be to produce a current. Once this first goal is achieved, you can go on to the next step. For the team to feel that they are making progress, it is essential to have short, concrete goals that are motivating. You want to maintain the team members’ interest in the project! Never forget: everyone is entitled to make mistakes. Starting over is a part of life. It’s impossible to succeed on the first try every time. The important thing is to know how to find solutions and persevere.

When a project has reached a certain stage or there is a new project on the horizon, I like to shake things up a bit. I will switch around some of the members of my teams of four to six to create new groupings. My aim is simple: I want to help my teams think outside the box by stimulating their inventive minds, creating different chemistries and encouraging them to share new ideas. I like to use the analogy of a hockey coach switching up the team’s forward lines.  

Same idea, but without the pucks! 

AI and the cloud as key knowledge transfer tools

I personally believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud are key tools to unlocking an organization’s potential. The cloud is fantastic for creating a collective memory and uniting teams around a common goal.  

But how these tools are used will determine their success or failure. It’s important to document projects properly, structure them effectively and follow an established file naming system to ensure information is easy to find. Ultimately, you want the cloud’s tools to become a search engine for your business. The benefits of access to information are huge, allowing your organization to maintain both its collective memory and its collective intelligence!

The challenge lies in choosing the right tools and using them consistently in order to know where to find the right version of the information you’re looking for. For example, if you update a file in database X, but the previous version was updated in software Y, work processes will not be optimized and there will be a lot of duplication. Good documentation is necessary but without over-documenting.  

Generative AI tools can help to structure your organization’s data in order to produce appropriate search results later. But one must keep in mind that AI does have limitations. Remember that it’s driven by human intelligence. If humans fail to input new data, it will be limited and imprecise because it won’t have learned anything new and it won’t understand the context of the situation.

This is further proof of the importance of ensuring that collective intelligence is preserved in a key location so that the organization’s collective memory can live on. 

Collective intelligence and collective memory: A winning combination!

Yes, I’m a fan of collective intelligence and collective memory! For me, these two concepts allow our organization to create value and grow over time. They ensure the continuity of our operations when someone is absent or leaves. It’s truly a winning combination!

My hope is that more organizations will understand that working collaboratively is a valid approach that enables everyone to contribute, producing results that exceed initial expectations.  

While people are beginning to talk about collective intelligence and collective memory now, in five years’ time, I predict these concepts will be on everyone’s lips all over the world. Organizations from every sphere will want to get in on it—and I will be delighted!

Is your organization using these processes yet?

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