Leaving class after week one I must admit that I felt sense of trepidation at the uncertainty of the upcoming semester and the range of topics discussed for which I know so little about. However, after week two, that feeling has been replaced with enthusiasm. I have so many questions and there are even more unknowns in relation to digital transformation. But after our first real engagement as a group, I can say with some confidence, that whatever knowledge I develop over the course of this semester, will be the collective thoughts of a very talented and diverse group of individuals, and that is better than what I could have hoped for. Over the course of the next 12 weeks, I hope to not only witness the cultivation of ideas and the cumulative exchange of diverse thought, but also to steal from the cognitive surplus that is generated by the group.
Our class on collective intelligence provided a great segue into what lies ahead semester, but I could not help but reflect on its relevance and how it has re-framed my perspective on the events of the past couple of months. And so, what I have been left to wonder, is that the wisdom may not lie in the size of the crowd, but in the nature of the crowd.
I wonder has technology and the internet come too far in its quest to create, develop and nurture collective intelligence. The early headline-grabbing events of 2021 worry me that there is now a new problem. There is clearly the existence of some far-fetched, often dangerous ideologies across the world. Technology and the internet have given these ideas a means of aggregation, turning fringe ideas into dangerous movements, amplified by the power of social media. We were witness to an object lesson in collective action with the GameStop scenario. Through collective intelligence and audacity, users of the Reddit forum WallStreetBets executed a sophisticated “short squeeze”, taking wealth from the pockets of billionaire investors and giving it instead to indebted US workers, using the ironically named Robinhood trading app to do so. Another example of how precarious and dangerous uninformed groupthink can be, was when we witnessed the chaotic product of what happens when the imaginal breaches the real world; the deplorable attack on the Capitol Building on January 6th.
Scottish writer Charles Mackay took a dim view of collective intelligence as far back as 1841 and I think his prescient thoughts highlights the perils of collective groupthink and the destructive impact of pooling uninformed cognitive surplus together.
People, it is well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their sense slowly, and one by one.Charles Mackay
And so, my concern with the future wisdom of crowds is if it will ultimately come down to the level of technology adoption, on both an individual and corporate level. As cognitive surpluses are being aggregated on digital platforms, I wonder will this wisdom be skewed in the favor of individuals who are adopting technology the fastest; is the wisdom correlated with digital maturity and is the more adoptive population dominated by an unevenly weighted distribution? Does this new dynamic represent a breeding ground for large scale groupthink to flourish at the expense of collective intelligence? The divergence in the levels of adoption means that wise members of the crowd risk being left behind, as the ill-informed mob continue on their dangerous path. A guess is a result of information plus error, but what if the numbers of errors are not cancelled through lack of diversity? Is faster universal adoption the crucial element to ensure that diversity is maintained among the crowd?
But as we discussed this week, there is still great reason to believe in the wisdom of the crowd, and we have seen numerous examples, one of which was mentioned in the blog post of our classmate Olivia on how Elon Musk is utilizing crowdsourcing to find a solution for the best carbon capture technology. And for those who are fans of the soft drink High C, you would endorse the wisdom of the crowd that have pushed for, and successfully seen its reinstatement at McDonalds restaurants this week.
While these scenarios have played out in the public forum, I am hoping that this class will help me to understand how to avoid such examples of unhelpful groupthink in the workplace, ensuring that the loudest voices will not be generated by a skewed crowd, lacking the diversity of thought required for the effective generation of innovative ideas. How can companies ensure that their actions are products of the wisdom of the crowd and not the anarchy of a mob? As we will undoubtedly come to see over the course of the semester, is just how important people are to digital transformation and how personal interactions will be changed in an increasingly digital world.
I learned a new term this week- Digital Nomad – when I saw how Nissan have introduced a means for a “work from anywhere” approach. But this represents a challenge that workplaces now have in creating the necessary means of cultivating the collective intelligence as we begin to return to physical offices, with some workplaces championing the prospect of a hybrid work environment.
I am now left wondering if these new flexible work situations and a hybrid workforce results in fewer serendipitous exchanges, the type of casual collisions of innovative ideas that take place at the water cooler, or in the cafeteria. Is there a digital alternative to ensure that these cues to firm culture are not lost in cyberspace? In a post-COVID world, it will be interesting to see the companies that can exhibit their nimbleness and successfully adapt to the new organizational challenges posed by the pandemic and those firms who can harness the power of technology to improve organizational knowledge flows, whether that be through the effective design of workplaces or in ensuring synchronization of the schedules of their hybrid workforce.
And so, I may not know the answers to these questions, a discomfort I will undoubtedly become more familiar with over the course of the semester. I may not even have the answers upon graduating either. But I now know that I will be equipped with the collective talents and intelligence of the class of #ISY8621. And after our discussion this week, it’s clear that our collective understanding will be far greater than anything I could have come up with on my own.
So how many of my classmates do I need for that light-bulb? While this time last week I would have had to take a guess, I am now confident in the knowledge that together as a group we will be able to come up with the best solution. And if not, then I can always turn to the r/lightbulbMBA thread on Reddit for help…..
Chance favors the collective mind