A group of Collective Intelligence-enabled consultants await their fate
The center is headed by luminaries from the Wharton School at U Penn., and MIT’s Sloan Management School and brings in guessperts from the cognitive science faculty. The timing could be better – MIT has been under fire for cooking its research results. But the first words of the new center’s mission statement indicate that the venture is more faith-based than reality-based:
“The recent successes of systems like Google and Wikipedia suggest that the time is now ripe for many more such systems”
Er, … “Success”? If this is the same Google that’s fighting a battle with click fraud and junk websites (and diversifying its business appropriately), and the same Wikipedia that’s become a staple of late night TV comedians’ jokes, then we’re in trouble.
And if you can’t trust the diagnosis from these management consultants, how can you trust their prognosis, either?
Well, you simply need faith – and lots of it.
Even the best-read prophet of “collective intelligence”, journalist James Surowiecki, cautions against a hype he helped create. A fan of prediction markets, Surowiecki discovered only a rare alignment of circumstances could ever provide something useful, and he hedged around the tricky subject of gaming and capture – perennial problems for Google and Wikipedia respectively.
Linux gets namechecked by the CCI as an example of collective intelligence. But Linux isn’t a “crowd” at all – it’s a tiny meritocracy of highly-skilled programmers employed by large corporations, or in some cases, universities.
Nor is what emerges from the other examples usually cited “intelligence”, but a kind of collectively-agreed risk hedging. When the vaunted “wisdom of crowds” is applied to creative endeavors – such as product development, the creative core of many businesses – the result looks like the brown lump of Plasticene in a kindergarten activity box. The work of many will typically be blander than the work of one, or a small and focused team. You may have heard of the iPod.
Much of this thinking (if we’re to be generous) isn’t new – and where it’s new, it isn’t very good.
So-called “bottom-up” empowerment rhetoric espoused by gurus such as Deming and Peters is misguided, history professor James Hoopes points out in False Prophets, a book about management consultants. And the answers you get are only as good as the questions you ask, points out Jaron Lanier.
Yesterday’s AI evangelists are today’s Hive Minders.
“The value [of the internet] is in the other people. If we start to believe that the internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots,” wrote Jaron Lanier earlier this year, discussing the mania.
Still, there’s a lucrative market to be gleaned from a business class that spends its spare cash at airports on management classes such as Who Moved My Cheese?. “Sell Air, Not Haircuts to Succeed,” advises the CIC chief Barry Libert in his latest blog post, and he appears to be as good as his word.
With that payday in mind, the MIT’s Badger School already has a book project in mind – insultingly titled We Are Smarter Than Me – and you may be the next victim of the revolution.
Which of the following functions performed by “collective-intelligence”-toting management consultants would you cut first?
I’m all for the really long expensive lunches, as long as I’m invited and I don’t have to pay for them. I’m especially in favor if ‘Hive Minders’ think that the way to woo the “holdout mind” is increasing the length and expense of said “really long expensive lunches”® over time … and time again … and again!”
The useless blog and wiki software is a great idea … it keeps the hive minders busy planning and discussing where to take me for the next “really long expensive lunch”®.
The presence of the Wharton and Sloan management schools is telling. Business schools love to assume the authority of science while avoiding the rigours of quantitative reasoning. Data are boring to the executives that are paying to be entertained and flattered while they polish their resumes. And data might falsify the theories.
A couple of heretics at Harvard Business School do a job on the whole sorry racket in their book, reviewed here.
To answer the Institute of Fact-Swervers own poll, it will, of course, be marketing and pr that get ‘replaced by community’. It’s a commonplace that web shopping shifted the burden of data-entry onto the consumer (Amazon has a POS terminal on my desk). So, offload the costs of marketing and pr; get consumers to advertise to themselves and each other.
Kafka was, as ever, there before us:-
‘The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.’ – The Third Notebook, November 21, 1917.
All this stuff reminds me of the “Quality Circles” movement (I was a Quality Control Engineer and Manager during its heyday). W. Edwards Deming was NOT a fan of that, although his approach to Statistical Quality Control did attempt to give the operator more control over his/her work. Deming’s premise, though, was that technical staff would use the collected data to improve processes, making it easier for a worker to produce good parts. Joseph Juran, the guru of Quality Assurance, advocated a top-down approach (a little too cutely called “Breakthrough”) that assigned small dedicated teams of skilled people to identify and solve problems.
Meanwhile, Don Dewars, a formerly Lockheed expert, was selling tons of consulting hours installing Quality Circles, which generated time-wasting meetings, team-building exercises, and gobs of cool posters, but very little in the way of long-term tangible results.
“Collective-intelligence” (or collective decision making) is bullshit. A half decent dictatorship will beat the hell out of a democracy for efficiency any day, so why the hell would you turn a business dictatorship (or oligarchy if you will, which in practise is what you have now) into some kind of pseudo democracy when the aim is to make money in the most efficient way possible? Democracy might be the best of a poor bunch (thanks to WSC) at trying to let everyone have a say in where we are collectively heading as a society, but that is not what we are trying to do in business.
If you look at the most successful companies (and that’s the best measure of what has worked so far), you may find they listen to their employees, customers and shareholders etc, but the directions and decisions are always made by those in charge, not the great unwashed masses. Democracy (or “collective intelligence”) it ain’t.
Especially the goddam team-building exercises.
And the All-Hands meetings.
And the achingly-awful Kickoff Events.
And the Team Award lunches at chain pubs with plastic menus.
And the Rate Your Colleagues in a League Table assessment exercises.
All of the above; but especially the badgers! Haven’t they heard of Bovine TB 😉
Does that leave them anything else to do? Ah yes meetings.
When I was a consultant the collective noun was a ‘wallet’ of consultants.
I think the correct response to a proposal from one of these ‘guru’s’ would be something along the lines of ‘Gee, we really need to talk to all of your competitors as well, you know, to get the collective wisdom on whether we should hire you’.
Thanks for another sane article.
MIT’s _real_ engineering departments are world-class. And when I say _real_ I mean people who know calculus, not “computer scientists”. The AI Lab and Media Lab exploit MIT’s reputation to peddle junk science and suck up grant money.
A camel is a horse designed by committee.
Too many cooks spoil the soup.
Individuals are smart, people are stupid – K, Men in Black.
All religion, politics, pop music, fads and the wars, waste and suffering resulting from these (cultures) are the product of a collective mind.
The Soviet Union, China’s cultural revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields and Nazism are all the result of a collective mind.
Observation will show you that nothing worthwhile has ever (and many extremely bad things have) come from “collective-intelligence”. This has been the basic truth of human existence for all time.
Now onto the results. Over a hundred voted, but only one vote came in to cut “long and expensive lunches”. Fair enough. Teambuilding and “useless blog and wiki software” tied with nine votes each. But the overwhelming majority voted to see this cosmic class of non-productive labour banished at once.
So take that, MIT. Our “collective intelligence” is a lot better than yours. And it carries a big stick.