In 1968 the American nuclear submarine, the USS Scorpion, disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean, 50 miles south of the Azores. Finding the submarine proved to be an arduous and difficult task since it could be anywhere within a 20-mile radius and was several miles down. Various experts were called in to help the navy, but to no avail. Then Dr. John Craven, the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Division, came up with an innovative solution. He suggested several possible scenarios for the location of the submarine, got together a group of specialists in different disciplines, from mathematicians to salvage experts, and asked each of them individually to venture an explanation as to the speed the vessel was travelling when it struck the bottom.

None of the answers they gave provided the definitive solution. After a full 25 years of fruitless attempts at locating the submarine, Craven took all of the experts’ proposals and, by applying Bayes theorem, arrived at a new estimate that was very different from the specialists’ original conjectures. Craven’s calculations led to the remains of the submarine being found. The whole story is told by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, and is a clear example of group intelligence. Crowds do indeed display a disconcerting wisdom. The author provides countless examples that illustrate this. For example, predictions about Oscar winners on a website where anyone can say what they think prove to be more accurate than those of the ‘experts’ that appear in newspapers. Or the case of 20 employees at Hewlett Packard in the nineties who, in a fictitious futures market, managed to forecast sales with 75% more accuracy than the official company estimates. Or Google, which become the best internet search engine through the use of group intelligence. However, many organisations are, without doubt, still not tapping into the potential that ‘the wisdom of crowds’ has to offer.

If we want to get a genuinely intelligent response from asking people what they think, certain principles need to be applied. Diversity, independence and decentralization are crucial. Obviously, the people who are asked to express their opinion also need to know something about the subject under discussion! It’s vital that individuals say what they really think, and are not influenced by others. It’s important as well to consult a broad cross-section of people, and for all decision-making to be decentralized. So, how can we go about doing this in companies? What would happen if we sent round a questionnaire asking staff to forecast sales, or to choose the best policy? Social networks now offer us the chance to do this. The challenge facing companies is to change the current paradigm that makes generating ideas the responsibility of the few, and to see what the crowd thinks. Why not ask them?

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