I finally read the Wisdom of Crowds – Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few by James Surowicki. I picked up from the book the saying “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. For some reason I have ran into this sentence in several texts lately.
Surowicki is using the saying when writing about “herding” and “imitation” of the many. People seem to end-up to some same decisions because everybody else is taking the same decision.
I have earlier claimed (update 23.12.2008: a link to the to PDF of the article) that the LMS hype was a result of the same phenomena. The thinking was: because, everybody is having Learning Management Systems, we must have one, too. In some time, if you wanted to play safe (and keep your job) you just compared different LMSs and then purchased one.
An interesting point Surowicki is making, is the observation that “groups (I would use the term crowds) are better at deciding between possible solutions to problems than they are at coming up with them”. So, crowds are not good at defining problems or even to invent possible solutions. Crowds are good at choosing from a selection of predefined solutions.
So, what went wrong with the LMS? Maybe there were not many solutions available, and obviously the problem was not well defined. Crowds where choosing from a few available solutions (each of them about the same) without even knowing what was the problem they were suppose to solve. Lemmings?
In the Finnish speaking crowd, people seems to have take in use the term “swarm intelligence” (parviäly) when they talk about the ideas Surowicki is also talking about. Words makes a difference. Actually to use the Finnish term “wisdom” (viisaus) next to the word “crowds” would be silly – something young children may do. In school you learn that “swarm” (parvi) is the group of birds leaving in autumn and coming back in spring. You learn that they are note “wise”, but still able to find they way.
You also learn that wisdom is something you may gain with time. Old people, like Väinämöinen, can be wise. Lemminkäinen and Joukahainen are not wise, neither Aino, Vellamo or even Louhi. They are not wise, but they all (maybe not Louhi) may become a bit more like Väinämöinen, one day.
Back to the topic: Now we know that crowds are not good at setting problems. How could we teach, guide or help people to learn to ask good questions? When there are good questions it is much easier to come-up with good solutions.
To work with real problems and solutions you need close peer-groups. You must feel free and comfortable to ask naïve and hard questions So, from whom to do you ask these questions? With whom do you come up with possible solutions to the problems?
(1) From your mother and father, from your best teachers, your close friends;
(2) from the feeds in your PLE and the blogosphere?
To put it in the fashionable terms of “networks” you basically ask (good) questions from and with the people with whom you have strong links. In his theory of social ties, Granovetters (1973) gives the following factors for strength of a tie: amount of time spent, emotional intensity, intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal service associated with the tie.
By the way, guess from whom did my partner (and I) get the Surowicki’s book as a present two years ago? My father.