02 December 2022

Written by Dr Joseph Sekhampu - Executive Head: Commerce and Management

The complexity of our current economic and social systems has created an environment in which organisations are facing more uncertainty than ever before. Rapid technological advances, constantly changing consumer demands, and an increased trend towards connected markets have fundamentally altered the way in which businesses operate. People need to collaborate across borders, timezones and work cultures, and company structures need to accommodate this.

For leaders to overcome the challenges and capitalise on the advantages associated with the changes in how businesses function, they must develop new capabilities that allow them to harness knowledge from different perspectives, access diverse sources of information and tap into collective intelligence by creating opportunities for collaboration between teams inside organisations, as well as between organisations themselves. To foster a culture that is more innovative, agile and creative, companies need to look beyond their organisational structure and focus on the social relationships within it. This can be achieved through collective intelligence, which combines the knowledge, ideas and experience of individuals to solve broader problems or make decisions.

In dynamic environments, where change is inevitable, and the future is unpredictable, it is critical for leadership teams to focus on organising social relationships in their companies to encourage collaboration, curiosity and innovation.

Organisations are made up of individuals with different ideas and perspectives. Some may hold minority views that are not mainstream within the respective organisation. Leaders need to harness this opportunity, and create conditions in the workplace that encourage people to connect and learn from each other. Collaboration is where creativity is borne, by balancing spontaneous interactions with deliberate design. This concept can be implemented practically by creating accessible, informal social spaces where people can meet and talk. These areas should be open so that anyone can participate in the conversation, and they should also be designed to encourage people to talk about things that matter to them, beyond work. The purpose of these spaces is to allow people to build a network, amongst their colleagues, that will be capable of generating new ideas in extended contexts. This network should be open-ended and collaborative – rather than hierarchical, which requires a company culture that supports this kind of communication.

Organisations need to cultivate a culture of curiosity, whereby people feel safe to try new things (and fail) and share their ideas. This requires leaders who are open-minded, comfortable with being wrong, have a healthy sense of humour, and who understand that mistakes are a critical part of learning and growing. It also means that people in an organisation need to be allowed time to explore their ideas, be given support when they require it and have the capacity to admit when they are wrong and learn from their mistakes to move forward. This is complex because it requires a change in thinking, with a move away from traditional notions of leadership and management, which are based on control over things (including people). Autonomy, creativity, and collaboration need to be embraced. These three qualities emerge when people are given the freedom to explore their own ideas. We need an attitude of curiosity rather than certainty.

When people come together to solve a problem or challenge, they tap into each other’s knowledge, ideas and experiences to generate solutions that are greater than the sum of their parts. The social relationships that we create in organisations are the basis of collective intelligence. For organisations to be effective at this, there needs to be a strong connection between people across the organisation, so that they can share their knowledge and experiences, and explore innovative ideas from different perspectives.

Ultimately, there is no perfect formula when it comes to creating an optimal workplace environment. Many different factors need to be considered and many different approaches will likely yield varying results in different organisations. However, it is possible to use a systematic approach to stimulate innovation, creativity and problem-solving. We can harness the natural energy of our workforce and ensure that we have the right people in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude.