All comments posted on this blog do not reflect the opinions of any organization that I am affiliated with. These are my personal perspectives only.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thoughts on "The Ignorance of Crowds"

One of the best "web 2.0" type articles that I've read recently has got to be Nicholas Carr's article "The Ignorance of Crowds". It's a balanced view of the potential of peer production and mass collaboration. With so much hype around Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Peer Production, Mass Collaboration, it's refreshing to see such a grounded article. As Nick writes...

"The bottom line is that peer production has valuable but limited applications. It can be a powerful tool, but it is no panacea. It’s a great way to find and fix problems, to collect and categorize information, or to perform any other time-consuming task that can be sped up by having lots of people with diverse perspectives working in parallel. It can also have the important added benefit of engaging customers in your innovation process, which not only allows their insights to be harnessed but also may increase their loyalty to your company."

Through a series of examples such as the limitations of Wikipedia, the governance model for Linux, and an overall reference to the paper, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar” written by Eric Raymond, Nick argues his points and cautions the reader about thinking peer production is a panacea.

Although Nick's focus isn't directly on the corporation, there are implications I believe that will allow companies to reap greater benefits of mass collaboration, peer production and social computing. For example, you would be wise to think of 3 layers at work and tailor your corporate program to all 3 layers.

1. The Individual
Acknowledge that the breakthrough ideas tend to be product of a single individual. Numerous examples abound on this. Steve Job's on his IPod Design. Even the open source example of Linux is the brainchildren of Linus Torvald. What web 2.0 & enterprise 2.0 allows for is the opportunity for those individuals and their ideas to be found. This is an example of tapping into the long tail to reduce the degrees of separation. This really isn't truly "collaboration" yet... It's discovery.

2. The Mass Collaborators
Mass collaboration has proven effective in tasks that are "parallelizable". The analogy Nick uses in discussing Linux bug fixes is an Easter egg hunt in which if you have 2 kids trying to find a 100 eggs, it will take a lot longer than have 200 kids trying to find a 100 eggs. Parallelism is achievable in "narrowly defined or routine tasks.". Massively parallel activity can provide rapid advancement but tends to lack refinement since refinement often requires high levels of coordination and larger masses actually slow down the process or simply fail.

3. The Governors & Coordinators
Having found the right concepts or ideas, and accelerated the incremental advancement of the ideas or concepts, the final piece is about refining it. Specialists in an area, dedicated experts, can mold that idea into a finished deliverable. Linux for example is considered an extremely stable, high quality system versus Wikipedia, which acknowledges discrepancies within it's articles. A core difference is that Linux is still centrally governed whereas Wikipedia is loosely governed.

The challenge to the governance and coordination is knowing at what point to bring this group in. Too early, and this group will slow down the process as they try to refine something that could have been done by a much larger parallel group. Too late, and this group will be challenged with higher quality issues that could have been avoided. Nupedia is an example of governance too soon and Wikipedia is an example of governance coming in late to try and improve the quality.

I think Nick sums it up very nicely...

"So if you’re looking to bolster your company’s creativity, you should by all means look for opportunities to harness the power of the crowd. Just don’t expect the masses to take the place of the lone wizard or the band of mages. The greatest breakthroughs will always begin, to quote Eric Raymond once more, with “one good idea in one person’s head,” and the greatest products will always reach perfection through the concerted efforts of a highly skilled team."

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