Crowd wisdom and revolutions

Rob May over at BusinessPundit has changed his mind about the value of "crowd wisdom" to businesses. If I'm reading his post correctly, he argues that experts discover niches and it's this kind of knowledge that is most useful to entrepreneurs. The real meat of Rob's post for me is this:

The thought processes in your brain depend on two things, inputs andstructure. Scouring the web all day reading a million blog posts changes your inputs. Mastering an idea and achieving a deeper level of understanding about something changes your structure. Structural changes will lead to the revolutionary ideas that become great companies.

Frankly, I'm not much of a businessman, but I hope to add something to the discussion by way of answering this question: how do we arrive at revolutionary ideas?

I'm interested in crowd knowing because I'm interested in how information comes together to form knowledge. New knowledge can come from the bottom up (chunking the data, or thinking inductively) and/or from the top down (generalizing, or thinking deductively). Both have their uses. When we bisociate, we're employing bottom up and top down strategies simultaneously. One is tactical and the other, strategic. Really good game players bisociate really well.

To the extent that it has something to say, crowd wisdom is effective because individuals contribute their portion of the solution, as well as their biases, to the whole. I distinguish it from group think or conventional wisdom, which by definition is common and easily understood. For example, stock exchanges provide a gage to the health of the market (or at least the health of the market as defined by the participating companies), but it's left to us to make sense of what the crowd is saying. The market is constantly new and changing but open to interpretation.

Experts make progress by incorporating new facts into an existing framework to innovate. They test, measure and, if possible, falsify. In contrast, crowd wisdom is hard to nail down. Being hard to nail down doesn't make it less true but it does make it a risky source of information. Certain knowledge in that context is achieved only after one jumps from the cliff. It does not reward hasty or rash decision making, nor do I believe there a direct connection between what one believes to be true and what should be done.

Horizontal knowledge, the "breadth to depth" function as Rob puts it, is critical to creative thinking. I agree that it can be awfully shallow and glib. Still, it often precedes the biggest discoveries, and like the market example above, is constantly signaling us. Rather than a grab bag of information, cross discipline thinking -- engineering and design, for example -- when paired with carefully built bottom up knowledge, can be revolutionary.

And rather than change existing structures to deliver something entirely new, I visualize our minds working to combine unprovable and provable knowledge to reach revolutionary conclusions. We can know something is revolutionary and still not fully grasp it or, in the case of a business plan, foul up its execution. I don't think it's a safe process. Given the lack of certainty, it's hard to manipulate. But the rewards might be worth the risk. Rather than serve niches, this revolutionary knowledge might create whole new markets.

Just my thoughts.


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