About three months ago Beth Kanter wrote about the Crowdsourcing of Vision at the Smithsonian Museum In a comment I suggested that crowdsourcing for visioning purposes was reminiscent of the use of OD (organizational development) principles and methods often found in large-scale organizational or system change initiatives. Beth asked me to elaborate. This blog post is my response.
Let's look at why and where crowdsourcing can be useful when organizations (private, public or not-for-profit) are facing important new or emerging issues.
Crowdsourcing – collective wisdom and collective intelligence
When consider crowdsourcing in the above context as a method for obtaining pertinent information and perspective from relatively large numbers of people, it is useful to differentiate between it and collective intelligence, a related concept.
Collective intelligence refers to the outcomes generated by pooling knowledge from diverse groups, using it to research and debate and then refining the resulting understanding into useful and actionable information.
Crowdsourcing collective wisdom refers to the aggregation of anonymously produced data from groups of independent, diverse and decentralized people (crowds). The information gathered is typically summarized into a collective judgment or perspective – the “wisdom” expressed by the crowd.
Crowdsourcing as a technique for gathering useful information stems from the concepts outlined in The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki; With a nod to the definitions above, the practice of crowdsourcing can be useful for tapping into the attitudes, opinions and beliefs of the “crowd” represented by an organization’s employees, customers and other stakeholders.
Many nuances and constraints have been applied to Surowiecki’s original ideas, and examples advanced wherein the ideas work more or less effectively. Whether you agree or disagree with the concept, there’s a fundamental attraction, and empirical evidence, to its utility. A crowd made up of diverse people with as many perspectives as there are people can, when faced with a question, problem or idea, generate a coalescing of sense and thence a consensus.
Indeed, a number of processes for working with small or large groups stem from
the same basic premise – organizational development, whole systems and
socio-technical systems theory rest on significant input from a wide
range of different actors. A crowd’s aggregated collective response to
a question or challenge creates a perspective or a position. In
Surowiecki’s terms this represents its collective wisdom.
Can Today’s Organizations Access The Collective Wisdom of Crowds
The workforce and other stakeholders of any given organization is a form of crowd. An organization’s crowd is likely to be more homogenous than a general crowd, to be sure. In the context of crowdsourcing, this relative homogeneity becomes important. It provides boundaries or constraints that complexity theory tells us are useful for bringing focus to the reasons for and expected results from the crowdsourcing.
For quite a few years now there have been sustained clarion calls for the development of learning organizations, more responsive and flexible cultures and for changes to fundamental assumptions and models of effective leadership and management. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars have been spent on visioning, strategic planning, culture change initiatives, coaching and more effective internal communications.
There are competency models galore, climate and culture surveys, and a wide range of other assessment, diagnostic and developmental tools and processes aimed at “harnessing the employees’ and the organization’s potential
However, the structure of most organizations is still clearly hierarchical and relies on learned command-and-control leadership and management techniques. Most leaders, executives and senior managers have been steeped in industrial-era management science assumptions. Their mental models began with these fundamental assumptions during their education and their first jobs. They have reached senior decision-making and leadership levels with the help of models that preceded today’s digital hyper-linked and networked environment with its wide, deep and rapid access to large numbers of people and vast amounts of information.
It is the rare “authentic” or natural leader that possesses or grows in
him-or-herself the wisdom to bring humility, purpose, values, clarity
and inclusive decision-making to creating and leading a responsive,
adaptable and effective organization.
Jim Collins codified these rare qualities in Level Five Leadership, a featured article in the Harvard Business Review’sBreakthrough LeadershipIf you want to harness collective intelligence of the organizational crowd, you must have humility and good listening skills.
From yesteryear to tomorrow
Enter social software .. blogs, Twitter, wikis and various widgets (like IM interfaces that help people connect, converse, swap ways of doing things and gather feedback from colleagues and customers). Using social software for purposeful activities tends to create gigantic, wide, always-coursing feedback loops that will not be stopped.
So.. in this new electronic networked environment, how can today’s leaders go about developing vision, values, and a range of other elements of strategy and tactics.
We know from pre-Web experience that there is indeed something tangible, observable and useful in the knowledge and intelligence contained in and offered up by crowds when faced with an issue. Four or five decades of organizational development and organization change theory, practice and results have shown us that.
Many of us have been paying attention to the evolution of the Web’s impact on our lives and work for some time now. We tend to believe that the adroit, open and sincere use of social software to tap into and listen to a given organization’s crowd can materially help leaders and managers evolve into people who do not rely on charisma, positional power, coercion or dishonest political manipulation. Acknowledging and seeking ways to use the crowdsourced wisdom typically requires humility, listening and servant leadership to face and embrace the responsibilty to lead and manage effectively.
An important caveat … in spite of much work by many organizations towards inclusive engagement, it only takes a little bit of perceived ambiguity, loss of perceived control, shifts in markets or constituents for control-oriented hierarchy to reassert itself very quickly.
Notwithstanding the apprehension of many of today’s more traditional or conservative leaders and managers, the possibilities of crowdsourcing useful vision and wisdom from employees, constituents and markets has been made much easier with the capabilities of today’s interconnected and interlinked Web. And, just as importantly, increasingly people want AND expect that their voices will be heard.
The job of a leader in today’s hyperlinked and transparent organizational world is to instantiate the crowd’s intelligence and / or wisdom with a clearly-stated and purposeful mission and objective, and then listen ! This is where social software and methods like crowdsourcing can shine. They can and I believe will, eventually, replace or augment even the most sophisticated culture change initiative or surveys and diagnostics.
It can help leaders and managers learn to really listen, and to respond in intelligent and mature ways to the conversations that carry the collective wisdom of an organization’s ‘crowd’.
These days (and certainly tomorrow) it’s less and less about charisma, command and control, and more and more about listening to conversations and championing, catalyzing and coordinating the collective wisdom of any given organizational crowd.
Jon Husbands is a Listener, watcher and facilitator. Change agent who's been around many blocks. This post was originally published on his blog, Wirearchy.