Together we are smarter

It is already late in the afternoon. We have arrived in a typical English landscape where the hills are as gray as the clouds. The rain is drizzling down relentlessly today. A man in black stands alone and completes the scenery. Proudly erect, he stares at the dreary hills, braving the rain armed with his umbrella. Getting closer, I hear his musing, “Our world is chaotic in nature. Look, even the weather forecasts are wrong all the time.' This man turns out to be Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University.

Like Marcus, everyone wants to know if the sun is going to shine, or if it's going to rain. Predictions are apparently very important to us. It gives us a sense of control over certain situations. We like to plan our lives around the fickleness of the weather. An almost useless activity because everyone experiences that long-term weather forecasts are not very reliable. We just don't succeed, despite the sophisticated mathematical weather models at our disposal.

Are there no other methods of prediction then? Marcus shows us a simple approach, that a group of people know more than a single individual. He provides proof by repeating an age-old experiment. He asks 160 random people to guess how many candies (Jelly Beans) are in a large jar. As Marcus put the candies in the jar he counted them exactly. He counted a total of 4,510 candies. Of the 160 people surveyed, most were completely wrong and only four came close to the correct number of candies. However, when all the estimates are added up and divided by the entire group, the group's collective estimate turns out to be only 4 candies wrong. The group clearly knows more than the individual, also known as “The Wisdom of the Crowd.

The wisdom of crowds means that a group is smarter than its smartest individual. Essential to “wisdom” is independence and diversity of the group. If there is too much mutual interaction between people, wisdom gets lost because we start parroting each other and thinking less critically. Social media is therefore a threat to the wisdom of crowds in our time. 

But if we are getting closer to the right answer together, why does setting strategy often remain the preserve of an organization's top management? Many organizations still have the traditional strategy model of holding “hei sessions” every three to five years and setting strategy there. Employee knowledge and expertise is rarely included. Employees only know about the strategy when they are shown the end result in the form of a slick presentation. Why not activate the knowledge and power of employees and customers?

Ruud Olijve

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