Transforming employee engagement using collective intelligence

The employee survey is dead: long live collective intelligence!

The last decade has witnessed the rapid advance of social technologies in our day-to-day lives.

This has created a deeply interconnected society and revolutionised the way we exchange knowledge, opinions and experiences in our personal lives. Surprisingly, many organisations were slow to react to this reality, often favouring static feedback mechanisms that target individuals rather than recognising the rich resource of group insight that lies dormant within unstimulated networks of employees and computers.

In 2012 we conducted a research study with HR Magazine, about the Future of Employee Research. The research found that over half the participants (53%) – made up largely of HR and internal communication professionals – feel that the traditional employee survey is dead. Sensitive to social technology’s power in revealing wholesome Collective Intelligence – where individuals’ act together to combine their knowledge – this article will explore why systems that attain employee feedback through open, interactive environments can generate far more meaningful insight than any survey.

Traditional surveys are outdated

Traditional employee surveys where participants are asked to answer a series of tick boxes and write suggestions in a closed network is deeply uninspiring. Processing these types of questions is likely to engage what psychologist Daniel Khaneman calls System 1 Thinking, where fast and automatic decisions that don’t encourage critical thought are made. If organisations intend to collect considered feedback, methods are needed that engage System 2 thinking where deliberative thought occurs. 

"Traditional employee surveys where participants are asked to answer a series of tick boxes and write suggestions in a closed network is deeply uninspiring."

Collective Intelligence tools operate in open environments where comments can be displayed publicly, eliciting a positive form of social pressure which is likely to activate System 2 thinking when participants become aware that their comments are going to be read. Naturally, the prospect of being heard is likely to heighten levels of engagement and instil a sense of purpose – injecting contributions with meaning.

This engagement can be furthered still if participants are given the option to not only read other participant’s contributions, but to rate and comment on them while in turn receiving feedback on their own contribution. By opening a dialogue, employees are advanced from a situation where they may simply identify problems to one where they are actively involved in pooling solutions and actionable insight; providing employees with the highly engaging opportunity of having ownership over organisational success.

Traditional surveys provide limited intelligence

In addition to providing a more engaging user experience than surveys, Collective Intelligence tools also yield superior insight. Unlike that extracted from an individual, the intelligence generated in the collaborative environments of Collective Intelligence tools is an emergent property, necessarily stimulated within conversations that encourage users to re-consider or better their original opinion, allowing for conclusions with tangible outcomes to be reached.

Design considerations are crucially important in ensuring the output is authentic and representative of the population. Traditional discussion forums that present comments in lists can hide the true diversity of opinion by favouring early birds or those with extreme views. To ensure no participant’s views go unheard, Collective Intelligence systems can apply algorithms that distribute comments equally for evaluation.

It is important that the evaluation system can actually capture how participants feel. The difficulty with basic binary systems like up-vote buttons is that they provide no detail about what participants actually like about an idea – is it because they agree with it? Or that they think it is insightful? Or that it will be easy to implement? We just don’t know.

Collective Intelligence tools that use more sensitive and sophisticated rating mechanisms capture this far more accurately. It is through the analysis of such community ratings and comments that themes which resonate most with the community can be identified. As a result, the output is not shaped artificially by an individual analyst or team of researchers, but authentically by members of the group. These aggregation mechanisms transform private judgements into collective decisions, democratising employee opinion and allowing true Collective Intelligence to be collected.

Crowdoscope employs an engaging user-interface by using interactive visualisations to display responses and make conversations easier to navigate.

Pushing towards transparency

Despite social technology driving us headlong into the age of mass collaboration and mass transparency, some leaders seem reluctant to welcome this trend, fearing that giving employees a say in an open forum may result in critical feedback being attributed to them. The reality is that the perils of an open approach are often overestimated, concealing its merits.

Leaders who embrace it would be sending a positive message to both their team and their superiors by being progressive in embracing change. Transparency is critical to building trust and establishing an authentic dialogue between employees and employers, allowing meaningful conversations to take place where the right questions can be asked and the most effective solutions can be formulated.

Depending on the sensitivity of the topic in discussion, the ability to conceal participant identities may be useful in encouraging participants to provide candid feedback – this is an advantage Collective Intelligence tools may have over existing social media platforms such as Yammer and Chatter where participants’ identities are revealed.


Collective Intelligence is a social machine; the technology is the engine and the people are the fuel. What’s missing in organisations is the ignition, the go ahead. There needs to be a cultural change in HR departments that moves research away from giving employees a say behind closed doors to giving them a say in an open forum.

Editor of, John Sumser, who’s top-rated comment reflects the community feeling of those who participated in our Future of Employee Research study, recognises this potential: "The difference will be amazing. Today, we create hypotheses and then go and collect the data. Tomorrow, we'll be doing the inverse…We'll be getting answers to questions we didn't know to ask."

Mindful of the concerns and considerations discussed in this article, Silverman Research designed Crowdoscope in collaboration with Unilever to harness the Collective Intelligence of employees, customers and consumers. By giving participants a say in an open forum, Crowdoscope provides the ideal environment to optimize input and extract key insight.

Image: Thinkstock

Michael Silverman

Michael Silverman is managing director of Silverman Research. He is a psychologist and opinion research specialist, with a focus on social collective intelligence. He has worked in academia and commercial research as well as working in-house at Unilever as head of employee insight before establishing Silverman Research in 2010.