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Posted by: Jessi Hempel on June 01, 2007
Crowds are not wise. Nor are they ignorant. The intelligence, or lack thereof, resides in those of us who are trying to capture their momentum. Thought-provoking article arrived in my email box this morning from Booz Allen’s Strategy + Business. Penned by Nicholas Carr, it takes on the question of the day: just what is peer production good for anyway? His answer: look to crowds for optimization, not invention.
One fascinating point: once the crowds have been rallied to do their work, often a central authority possessing considerable talent is necessary to meld their efforts into a tangible product. Consider the Linux operating system and Wikipedia. Both rely on peer production. With Linux, coders invent and debug. With Wikipedia, experts of all stripes upload their expertise on all subjects. Linux runs for ages without crashing. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has some flaws. For one, Carr points out, the entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as the entry on Homer. (To say nothing of the entry on Smurfs….)
Look at the way each operation is run:
The Linux model relies on hordes of programmers to optimize. Linux has a lean managerial structure in which a central authority synthesizes the work of the crowd, curating the contributions to choose and hone the best. Wikipedia, on the other hand, attempts a more democratic leadership structure. A management team has slowly been forming, but those who filter the contributions to the site are chosen more for the quantityt of their contributions than the quality of their editorial skills.
Carr’s point is that crowds are good at some things – and really bad at some things. As crowdsourcing evolves, people are learning what they can and can’t do. It seems the genius of the individual is still critical at the beginning and the end of the innovation process: Invention is an individual pursuit – ideas are born to one person. Once an idea comes into being, though, it can be optimized through smart use of diverse groups of people. However, so far it seems that talent is critical to review the optimizations and meld them into coherent products, whether they be operating systems or encyclopedia entries.
What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.