Tuesday, August 01, 2006

'The Wisdom of Crowds'

  Posted by Picasa The book by James Surowiekki ‘Wisdom Of Crowds’ is an intriguing read and it’s findings seem counterintuitive – that under the right conditions groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant.

Most traditional organizations, including schools, are run on the assumption that someone higher up always knows better. Learning to trust the collective judgment of a group, the author says, might be difficult but it is also smart. We need to learn to rely less on individual leaders, and so called ‘experts’, and ourselves more.

To be able to tap the ‘wisdom of crowds’ three conditions are necessary.

1. There must be a diversity of group members and opinions.

2. Individuals must act independently providing contestable ideas to avoid an ‘assumed consensus’.

3. Organizations need to be decentralized to draw on local expertise.

But to capture the ‘wisdom’ some sort of process to aggregate ideas needs to be in place.

Without the conditions outlined above in place you can easily get ‘group think’, ‘going along with the crowd’, be swayed by the most talkative members, or be just be unable to make a decision.

Individualism and diversity is hard to get when all members share the same views or where member are exposed to the same cultural expectations. In such situations potentially valued contrary opinions are not listened to.

Decentralized organizations that tap into local expertise, diversity of members and independence of thought, are of little use if there is no way to aggregate ‘wisdom’.

Flocking birds, schools of fish and bees seem to be able to tap this collective intelligence but they all follow a few basic rules – the same ‘intelligence’ that allow hundreds of walkers to cross a busy pedestrian cross section without bumping into each other.

With a few rules groups can aggregate their shared wisdom. Paradoxically some sort of leadership process is required to do so. One way is for all group members to contribute their ideas without discussion and when all suggestions are gathered some form of voting can take place to decide on actions.

Teamwork is an ideal way, providing multiple perspectives, to utilize the wisdom of groups as long as all the conditions are in place and there is way to aggregate ideas. When groups work well they develop an identity of their own and develop what Surowiecki calls ‘intellectual swing’.

Leaders need to take an active role in making sure everyone gets a chance to speak and can act as a ‘devils advocate’ to interrogate ideas. Leaders can also ‘champion’ the ideas decided on by the group. Most important of all leadership is required to ‘give the group a means of aggregating the opinions of its members’ and then to ensure group members take the responsibility to get on with agreed tasks. This means members must be ‘honest about their performance’ and value feedback about progress. When an agreement is made everybody must play the same game.

Making collective judgments in ‘top down’ organizations is not easy. All too often hidden assumption or ‘mindsets’ get in the way but if it can be done it is a way for any organization to learn to be smarter. By accesiing the 'wisdom of crowds' 'learning organisations' can be created able to tap into and value the creativity of all members.

Fun places to work in!


Anonymous said...

If such a process were used in schools then they would be far better places to work and learn in - for both students and teachers. Unfortunately such insights haven't reached any schools I know of or have worked in - there is always some 'expert' who knows best!

Anonymous said...

A book everyone who wants to get the best from groups should read!

Anonymous said...

Too many like minded experts fooling themselves into a false sense of consensus in Wellington?