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Monday , October 25 , 2010
 
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More women, please

Call it the power of female social skills. New research suggests it might be a good idea to have more women in teams —senior management, product development, perhaps even military combat teams.

Six months ago, Sabina Neilsen, a researcher at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, found a curious pattern in the make up of corporate boards — the greater the number of women in boardrooms, the lower the conflict levels and the greater the effectiveness of the boards.

Researchers in the US have now discovered that the larger the number of women in a group, the greater is the group’s collective intelligence. Social scientists have long believed in the existence and utility of a measurable and quantified level of intelligence in each individual. The new study by Thomas Malone and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the first to investigate collective intelligence as the ability of a group of people to perform a variety of tasks across several domains.

In the study, the researchers placed 699 people in groups of two to five and assigned each group a large variety of tasks — visual puzzles, negotiations, brainstorming sessions, games and sophisticated rule-based design assignments.

The findings, published recently in the journal Science, suggest that the performance of a group may have little connection to the individual abilities of its members. Even if members had a high average intelligence, this didn’t always translate into high group performance. They also observed a correlation between the number of women and collective intelligence.

The finding appears to be in line with observations by Neilsen and her colleague Morten Huse at the Norwegian School of Management that more women directors spend more time on management strategy, including how the organisation performs its tasks, and to health, the environment and safety. Their results, published in the journal Corporate Governance: An International Review, show that a higher ratio of women directors leads to reduced levels of conflict and more time spent on strategic tasks.

The link between women and the collective intelligence may be explained by the social sensitivity skills of women. “The social sensitivity measure evaluates how well individuals are able to interpret facial expressions and make inferences about how people are feeling and thinking,” said Anita Woolley, assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon University in the US, and a co-author of the study. “Women had higher social sensitivity scores — and once you factor this in the analysis, the proportion of women in the group is no longer important.”

Previous studies have shown that women score higher on an average than men on social sensitivity tests, said Thomas Malone, director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “This could account for the finding that women add to collective intelligence. In other words, having more people with high social skills in a group is good for the group, whether the people are women or men.”

Researchers say collective intelligence will help quantify a group’s capabilities. It is important in pretty much any situation that relies on group performance — senior management teams, product development teams, or military combat teams, Woolley said.

“You could give a collective intelligence test to a team and use the scores to predict how well it will respond to a variety of problems,” said Malone. Tests for collective intelligence could also determine how the addition of technology can change the performance of the group.

The researchers say the findings alter the existing notions of intelligence. “It is becoming less relevant what an individual can do by himself or herself and more relevant to understand what individuals can accomplish with others and with technology,” Woolley asks. Good question.

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