|Last month I laid out a suggested process, diagrammed at right, for business to use the principles in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds to make key decisions and solve key problems facing the business. Surowiecki provides compelling evidence that, in every field of human endeavour, when properly canvassed large numbers of people, even if only modestly informed, consistently produce significantly better decisions and answers than the wisest smaller groups of ‘experts’. Collective wisdom, he argues, could be a powerful surrogate for expertise, perhaps even replacing management and hierarchy in organizations, and eliminating the need for expensive consultants, professors and other self-proclaimed professionals.
The implications of this are enormous, from the possibility of truly flat, egalitarian business enterprises that would be vastly more effective and efficient than today’s hierarchical ones, to the possibility that those who cannot afford expertise from experts (such as those in countries with no access to affordable health care) might be able to get even better counsel, diagnosis and recommendations for action by simply tapping into the collective wisdom of large numbers of sympathetic, free, people.
In my earlier article I suggested four points in the decision-making process where the Wisdom of Crowds might be tapped:
In essence, collective wisdom reduces the role of the solution team from one of expert decision-maker or advisor, to a purely administrative role of compiling the candidate issue components, root causes, alternative solutions, and implementation plans for the ‘expert assessment’ of the ‘crowd’, and then doing what the crowd ‘decided’. So, for example, if the Problem is the ineffectiveness of the corporate intranet, the administrative solution team would assemble the candidate issues underlying this problem (e.g. inability of users to find things on it), the possible root causes of these issues (e.g. poor intranet organization, lack of awareness, lack of training, lack of time, lack of motivation), the possible solutions (e.g. more training, reorganization or rationalization of content), and the action plans to implement the best solutions (e.g. personal productivity improvement). The ‘crowd’, consisting perhaps of a broad cross-section of users and customers, would do the important work of selecting and rating the alternatives and critiquing the action plans.
As unorthodox as this is, it’s really nothing more than a rigorous approach to what the best business decision-makers do intuitively anyway: canvass users and customers before they make decisions affecting them.
There is still, of course, opportunity for the dis-empowered solution team to fuck up. This decision process relies on the solution team to actually come up with the alternatives, hopefully (but not necessarily) a complete and unbiased list. That requires the solution team to understand the problem and to have sufficient analytical (deductive) and creative (inductive) intellectual capability to create complete and logical lists of alternative issue components, root causes, and solutions. The ‘crowd’, unfortunately, cannot be counted on to identify missing alternatives and logical errors in their determination. So the Achilles’ heel of this proposal is that the solution team, perhaps annoyed by being replaced as decision-makers and relegated to an administrative role, might deliberately (or through lazy or biased thinking) sabotage the process by producing distorted or deficient lists of alternatives. Of course, the decision teams can do this now, by making their decision based on biased preconceptions or in the absence of all the facts and then reverse-engineering the facts and lists of alternatives to justify that decision and discredit or discount alternative decisions. Surowiecki outlines several notorious cases where over-confidence, ego, groupthink, haste, or personal bias of decision-makers led to catastrophic decisions.
What I’m getting to with all this is that perhaps the above model could be the modus operandi of a new ‘think-tank’ that would apply its understanding of some of the world’s most urgent and intractable problems to develop, for each problem, possible alternative issue components, root causes and solutions, and then subject those alternatives to global ‘Crowds’ who would decide which are the really critical component issues, which are the real root causes, and which are the most viable solutions, and to critique the resultant action plan to solve the problem. This is not a referendum: In a referendum the ‘crowd’ merely ratifies or rejects a solution that the ‘experts’ have come up with. In this model, the ‘crowd’ actually determines what the best solution is, eliminating in the process, through successive rounds of decision-making, solutions that stem from false understandings of the issues (“Iraq has WMD”), false understandings of the root causes (“terrorists just hate freedom”), and inferior solutions (“removing Saddam is the best way to make the world safer from terror”).
This is not the way think-tanks (more prosaically known as Institutes for Public Policy Research) operate today. There are hundreds of think-tanks in the world, most of them being:
In Canada, for example, there are about a dozen think-tanks, the best known of which are the right-wing CD Howe Institute and the arch-right-wing Fraser Institute, both of which are beholden to their corporate members and both of which are really nothing more more than corporatist lobby groups masquerading under a thin veneer of academic respectability. (At least in the US lobby groups are required to register and admit what they are). The largest Canadian think-tank is a captive of the Government of Canada, and really acts as one of the government’s research arms. It is usually apolitical to a fault, though it occasionally tips its hand, as it is doing in its meeting today, which features disgraced anti-environmental wingnut Bjorn Lomberg as its guest of honour. Lomberg, by the way, is now in the employ of the largest global think-tank, the arch-right-wing corporatist World Economic Forum that holds the exclusive Davos meetings annually, its selected members sequestered behind barbed wire to protect them from the Wisdom of Crowds demonstrating in the streets.
Most of Canada’s other think-tanks are creatures of Canadian universities, and I’m challenged to tell you whether they have a bias or not, because most of their research reports are so esoteric and obscure I’m not even sure what they’re about. A refreshing exception is the tiny IISD, a think-tank for sustainable development based in Winnipeg, which appears to be unbiased and committed to producing helpful, actionable research. It, too, however, is dominated by PhD’s, and doesn’t use the Wisdom of Crowds.
So my proposal is to set up a global think-tank based on the Wisdom of Crowds. Whoever funds it would have to have faith in that wisdom, because the above process won’t tolerate bad research or bias, and the decisions of the ‘crowd’ are final, not subject to override by experts with or without PhDs. I believe for that reason that such a think-tank would have enormous credibility with governments and political leaders and innovators and thought leaders and the media, where today’s mostly-biased think-tanks have very little. It would not be terribly expensive to run or staff — after all, its staff would be knowledgeable, intelligent ‘average’ people, with no expertise required. It would have to do some work to flesh out its modus operandi, since Surowiecki, beyond identifying the enormous promise of such decision-making groups, doesn’t elaborate on precisely how an organization that was built around The Wisdom of Crowds would operate. But I’m sure, if we have some challenges figuring out these details, we can always tap into the Wisdom of Crowds to help us decide.
Anyone have a contact with George Soros? I’ve got a proposal for him.