Awasu » The Wisdom of Crowds
Wednesday 2nd June 2004 11:43 AM [General]

An intriguing article over at Wired by James Surowiecki, author of "The Wisdom of Crowds":

Success, most corporations assume, depends on the efforts of a few superlative individuals. As a result, they treat their CEOs as superheroes, look on most of their employees as interchangeable drones, and remain fond of command-and-control strategies that wouldn't have been out of place in the Politburo. In doing so, firms are neglecting their most valuable resource: the collective intelligence of the organization as a whole.

Instead of looking to a single person for the right answers, companies need to recognize a simple truth: Under the right conditions, groups are smarter than the smartest person within them.

The article is quite short but Surowiecki talks more about his ideas here:

There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd's answer. It needs a way of summarizing people's opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.

Crowds are notorious for doing dumb things whether it be riots or economic exuberance but Surowiecki argues that there are intelligent and unintelligent crowds. Intelligent crowds are composed of independent individuals drawing on a wide variety of experience and information sources and intuitively this makes sense. There is much value in having a wide diversity of experience and opinions and a group of people with a common background are unlikely to dream up with things that come from outside that background. This also ties in with the success of Google as a search engine, which assigns greater value to pages that are linked to by more people i.e. it utilizes the collective intelligence of everyone on the net.

We have been captivated by the allure of the superstar, whether it be the super-CEO or Hollywood A-list actor. Corporations pay consultants ludicrous amounts of money for the benefit of their expertise and we idolize those who have been "successful" at the expense of the power that a group can have. And having lived and travelled in Asia for many years, I've lived in and gained some insight into a different type of society, one that places a greater value on the group over the individual than most Western ones do.

Poking around on the net, I also stumbled across an area of research known as collective intelligence which concerns itself with a lot of the same issues. I have also been fascinated for many years by the Prisoner's Dilemma and its implications for the way we conduct ourselves and live our lives, which also asks questions about how we relate to and behave towards each other. And all this reminds me of Isaac Asimov's psychohistory, the premise of the Foundation trilogy, where he writes about the sciences of psychology and statistics merging and being able to predict the behaviour of trillions of people, and hence the future of the galaxy, hundreds of years into the future.

Serendipitously, Earl Mardle writes this week about the complexity of systems and argues, correctly, that complexity comes from the interaction between the various players in a system. And that's why this whole blogging thing is so cool - the value comes from the network that is being built up and the communication that flows along the connections that are made. The web was, for a long time, a very static place consisting of a very large number of unchanging web pages with a bunch of hyperlinks connecting them together. But we have something very exciting now: a dynamic framework for discussion and exchange of ideas and knowledge and most importantly, easily accessible. Surowiecki suggests that the Columbia disaster was partly caused by NASA's failure to use the knowledge and information that their people already had. This is a too-common occurrence in large organizations, the failure to communicate and use information that's already there.

Earl closes with this:

[The technology] just demonstrates that any feeling of control is an illusion, and then demands that we play anyway. Does that mean that I’m an anarchist? Not at all, but it does mean that for the paradigms of control; force, compulsion and exclusion, we have to substitute co-operation, collaboration and contribution.

In other words, in this unbelievably complex system we call the world today, trying to control it by force and bend it to our will is a losing strategy and something more subtle is called for. I could rant for kilobytes here about, oh, let's say, US/Australian foreign policy, but I'll pass :-).

Anyway, I'm definitely going to chase up this book - it's going to be an interesting read. Can you tell we're at the end of a release cycle and I want to do something non-Awasu for a change... 🙂 🙄

2 Responses to this post

I would like to thank you for assembling such a coherent and helpful post.

Thanks 🙂

The book arrived yesterday so I'm having fun reading it now.

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