The command-and-control style of business management has been widely employed by organizations around the world since the days of Alfred Sloan and Henry Ford. It’s simple and effective: Executives give orders and the rank and file carry them out. While there may have been a time and place—like the industrial era—for this management style, a different approach, driven by technology, curiosity, diversity, and learning, is emerging to challenge it.
Call it “collective intelligence.”
Why is this happening now? The enterprise of today is a lot different than the kind of company many of us grew up in. In the past decade, digital technologies powered by artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and analytics have democratized many parts of the enterprise. Employees have the power to tease out insights from mountains of data. They have the freedom to assemble themselves into ad hoc, agile teams and build amazing products and services quickly and inexpensively that used to take hundreds of people, massive corporate budgets, and top-down decision-making. These new ways of leading and working favor the curious, the lifelong learners, and the self-starters who naturally embrace innovation.
At the same time, the composition of teams has changed, becoming more diverse, and diverse teams are especially creative and much better at problem solving than their homogenous counterparts. I have seen it firsthand—when you have 10 people with similar backgrounds in a room and ask them for ideas, you often get 10 very similar ideas. On the other hand, get 10 people of different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, and you unleash real creativity.
These changes within the enterprise have unfolded against the backdrop of a world transforming very fast—much faster than 10 or 20 years ago—and transforming in many dimensions all at once: socially, technologically, and culturally. No senior leadership team can handle this kind of change by making unilateral decisions, rendering command-and-control ineffective.
Collective intelligence is the new platform for decision-making. I’m not talking about crowdsourcing or even “management by walking around.” Collective intelligence harnesses the power of the modern enterprise. This requires creating a culture that can support rapid innovation across the company. It requires building diverse teams of people who can leverage this way of working—people who have the capability and desire for continuous learning. And, finally, it requires establishing the kind of management system that can focus talent and technology on clearly defined business goals.
When successful, it enables employees to source knowledge and learn from each other, leveraging what people know, and what they get exposed to collectively. It creates learning networks in the organization where experts serve as the central nodes and learners branch off from them. When you activate a learning network, it’s almost like the way a brain’s neural network functions.
A recent and historic example of this comes from the race to control the spread of COVID-19. The ability to produce promising vaccines in under a year is amazing. Using conventional approaches, this would have likely taken several years, as we’ve seen with previous vaccine development. We saw firsthand the power of what’s possible when the world leverages collective intelligence to focus on a pressing challenge. We see this reflected in the use of digital platforms to quickly identify likely treatments, as well as in the partnership between private industry, government, and nonprofits to streamline development. Digital tools and partnerships have also proven instrumental in other aspects of the fight against COVID-19. My company, Genpact, is helping the U.K. government employ artificial intelligence to track and trace possible adverse events in their upcoming mass vaccination program.
Managing in this new way does not mean CEOs abdicate responsibilities. What it does mean is that CEOs and other executives must be intensely curious and unafraid to collaborate with anyone. It requires humility to be the cornerstone of a leader’s personality. We must learn to take information and synthesize data and insights to make decisions at speed.
By harnessing the talents of the entire team and providing leaders with a constant stream of actionable insights and options to choose from, collective intelligence outperforms the old command-and-control, top-down way of running a business. It must be the management philosophy for the way we live and work in today’s world.
Tiger Tyagarajan is chief executive officer of Genpact, a global professional services firm focused on digital transformation.