In The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki suggests that leveraging the collective can often yield better results that asking any single expert. On election day, there are plenty of examples of crowd wisdom and prediction markets to draw from.
In business, we’re often focused on efficiency innovations — incremental improvements in efficiency that save time, money, or preferably both. So can crowdsourcing be used to automated processes effectively in the enterprise?
The answer? It depends on the question.
If the problem can be represented by a simply solution such as single number (42?), or deals primarily with optimization, then crowdsourcing can make a lot of sense. In the presidential election, leveraging the crowd to predict the winner fits the first dimension perfectly. There can be only one winner: either Romney or Obama.
If the problem, on the other hand, is complex, requiring wisdom and expertise, the crowd will be of little help. If you need to engineer a fuel system for a new airplane, the crowd may actually do more harm than good. While “asking the audience” may work statistically for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” remember that those questions also present multiple choice answers. And do you want to be on the maiden voyage of a new aircraft designed by the crowd?
Part of the problem–and therefore, the solution–comes from defining what we mean by crowdsourcing. Is it asking for an answer, even from the uninformed? If we’re talking elections, yes. If we’re talking jet propulsion, absolutely not.
Can we apply the wisdom of crowds in the enterprise? Certainly, but we must do so thoughtfully. Polling the crowd, whether that be inside our outside the firewall, can help inform decision-making. The crowd can either confirm or challenge our conclusions, but it does not replace the need for critical thought. And when safety is on the line, we have to be vigilant that we don’t allow a confirmation by the crowd to lull us into happily accepting our hopeful answer as the correct one.
After all, the crowd can be wrong.
What do you think? How and when would you apply the wisdom of crowds inside your organization?