The Wisdom of Crowds

 It has become so common to refer to the wisdom of crowds when talking about the power of the internet to empower people in forming groups and acting in a way that individuals could not. Is it possible for a random group to be smarter than an expert with years of experience? 

Looking at associations, is there consequently more intelligence amongst the members than can ever be with the organization’s staff ? 

And if so, how can we use that effectively ? Questions that made me decide to get into the book “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki.

Already in the introduction things seem to be more complex:

“ Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart”. 

And the rest of the book confirms these ‘nuances’ again and again.  Some examples:

“Generating a diverse set of possible solutions isn’t enough. The crowd also has to be able to distinguish the good solutions from the bad”.

“Independence of opinion is both a crucial ingredient in collectively wise decisions and one of the hardest things to keep intact.”

“ Any crowd – whether it be a market, a corporation, or an intelligence agency – needs to find the right balance between two imperatives: making individual knowledge globally and collectively useful (as we know it can be), while still allowing it to remain resolutely specific and local.”

Surowiecki illustrates the complexity of the concept of the wisdom of crowds with very divers cases covering all of society. This makes this book so much more than a trendy slogan.

“In any case, while it’s certainly true that you often need a smart individual to recognize the intelligence of the group, in the future that may no longer be as necessary. As the value of collective wisdom becomes more widely recognized, people will be more likely to adopt, on their own, collective approaches to problem solving, and the Internet affords us any number of examples of wise crowds that are, for the most part, self-organized and self-managed. We’re a long way from anything resembling bottom-up decision making, either in government or in corporate America, but certainly the potentials for it now exists. Will that potential be realized? Well, as it happens, that’s the most important question I still have about the idea of collective wisdom. While I’ve been impressed by the way in which organizations have started to experiment with collective decision making, I have also been struck by how profoundly the wisdom of crowds challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions about leadership, power and authority.”

Every association has to take this challenge into account!

The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, Anchor Books, 2005 (ISBN 0385721706)

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