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Collective Intelligence: An SEI Norm

By: David O'Donnell

As I recently surpassed the two-year mark in my time with SEI, I found myself reflecting upon my choice to join the firm, as well as the unique things that make us click as a team and make my work so enjoyable. One aspect I continue to return to is the impressive amount of collaboration that I witness on a daily basis, whether that is a Phoenix-based consultant sharing their expertise to help solve a pressing client need on a Boston-based project or consultants from the Chicago and New York offices chipping in to support a new client pursuit in Atlanta. The examples are too numerous to definitively capture, but the message is crystal-clear – collaboration and support for one another are central to who we are and how we operate.

Collaboration and teamwork have long been recognized in modern business management thinking as an instrumental good and a pathway to greater success. While these concepts may be well-established pieces of conventional wisdom, it often seems hard to build a team-based culture that is truly effective in achieving the goals of the organization. Over the course of my career, I’ve witnessed many incidences of companies talking the “good talk” about building a collaborative culture, only to find themselves at the end unable to achieve the transformative effects they expected. There are many pitfalls along the way to harnessing the power of a collaborative approach and making the most of an organization’s most valuable and limited resource: it’s employees’ knowledge, time, and commitment to share. Whether it’s an incentive structure that works to undermine free and open collaboration or perhaps a historical legacy of individualism, there sometimes seem to be more ways to go wrong than to get it right.

Where does a firm like SEI seem to succeed where others don’t? I think some of SEI’s success stems from a concept I was recently exposed to that is most associated with the French philosopher and professor, Pierre Levy, called collective intelligence, which he first advanced in his 1994 book of the same name. In brief, Levy explains the concept as follows:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills… My initial premise is based on the notion of a universally distributed intelligence. No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity…

Without ever hearing anyone at SEI say it by name, I feel that this concept of collective intelligence cuts to the core of our culture, and it’s critical not only in how we deliver for our clients every day but also in how we interact and support one another. At SEI, we recognize that while it’s impossible for any individual to know everything about all topics, it is quite possible to harness the power of our nationwide team of nearly 265 consultants with diverse backgrounds and experiences to augment the knowledge of any single individual in a meaningful and productive way.
We practice this collective intelligence approach in our work reflexively, as if it were second nature. When I encounter an issue that I’ve never dealt with before or recognize a need at my client that I’m not very familiar with, I trust that at least one of my colleagues will have what I may lack at that moment and will be more than willing to share their knowledge and experience with me. This has the practical effect of giving me the confidence to never shy away from new or difficult challenges because I know that I have a broad and diverse support network behind me. Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to support others when my own specialized knowledge and experience is needed because I know just how valuable my timely contribution to my fellow SEI consultant can be.

We accomplish this knowledge sharing in different ways. Technologically, we employ a company-wide collaboration platform that allows us to instantaneously communicate with one another in a group setting. Our platform is utilized to store and share project artifacts, tools, templates and other documentation and serves as essential “nervous system”, underpinning our work. Beyond our technology solution, we also look for every opportunity to meet and collaborate in-person or virtually, whether those are meetings organized around a specific topic of interest or ad hoc groups of consultants getting together to solve the most vexing problems we face. Further, we are not only incentivized to collaborate and share as part of our performance review process, our flat organizational structure removes any possible disincentive to helping out a colleague.

What really makes the collective intelligence approach work at SEI, however, is much more than what any technology solution, meeting, or incentive structure can provide. Rather, it is the tacit understanding that each of us sharing our own specialized knowledge is a normative behavior. What I’ve witnessed in my two-plus years with SEI is that when everyone is living and exhibiting that norm, we can, to paraphrase Levy, most effectively mobilize our collective skills to achieve the best outcomes for our clients and professional enrichment for ourselves.

David O'Donnell

Consultant

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