September 23, 2008

Cross-Posted: The Wisdom of Crowds Reigns Supreme

“Generally, no one person is smarter than the collective wisdom of the group," James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds
Before leaving my post at the CDC a few weeks ago, I snagged the following article which was posted to the CDC intranet. It's a brief article that I thought contained great insight for KM professionals. In 2004, Dave Pollard presented a model of how to implement Surowiecki's principles which can be found here.

The collective wisdom of diverse crowds generally gets it right, was the message of best-selling author James Surowiecki, who gave the opening plenary address to over 950 attendees at the recent CDC-sponsored National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media. Longtime HIV/AIDS activist Sandra Thurman was also a featured plenary presenter. Both speakers had important messages about expanding our traditional methods for all CDC staff in addition to attendees.

The Wisdom of Crowds: Tapping Collective Wisdom of your Organization

In the opening plenary, New York Times best-selling author James Surowiecki mentioned several key points from his book The Wisdom of Crowds, subtitled: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. “Tapping into the collective wisdom of your organization can radically improve your ability to solve problems, make forecasts, and think strategically,” he said. “Under the right conditions, groups of people can be very intelligent and can be smarter than the smartest person among them.”

As an example of the wisdom of crowds, Surowiecki talked about finance professor Jack Treynor’s classic jellybean experiment of having students guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. The group’s guess was 850; the actual number of jellybeans was 871. The number of people who did better than the group: 1 out of 56. “Generally, no one person is smarter than the collective wisdom of the group,” said Surowiecki.

In another example, Surowiecki made reference to the TV show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? whereby contestants can get help in answering a question by phoning an “expert” friend in a particular subject, or polling the audience. The friend gets it right 65 percent of the time. The audience: 91 percent. “Even as problems get more complicated, we can see this phenomenon take place,” Surowiecki said.
To make crowds smarter, and to take advantage of the collective wisdom of crowds, Surowiecki mentioned three things that are needed:
  1. A tool or method to aggregate lots of individual judgments into a collective one. Aggregation matters.
  2. Diversity — The more diverse the group, the better the decisions it will make, and the less likely that everyone in the crowd will make the same mistake. The errors people make will cancel themselves out. Diversity should expand beyond background and experience to cognitive diversity, which relates to how a person represents a problem and solves a problem.
  3. Independence — People like to think of themselves as independent thinkers, but oftentend to follow the imitation route. Imitation can be rational, easy, and safe, but if everyone is imitating, they’re not tapping into the wisdom of crowds. Genuine disagreement is needed for the wisdom of crowds to emerge.
Surowiecki reminded the audience that knowledge is often located in places they may not usually consider. “So look beyond the surface when you think about who should be among the crowd.” Attendees buzzed about the need for expanding our traditional “crowds” and tapping into the larger group’s wisdom.