Thursday, 5 August 2010

Working through consensus

Collaboration is very much on my mind at the moment, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a new book caught my eye. "Smart Swarm" by Peter Miller suggests that the business world can learn from the behaviour of bees, ants and other animals. These groups communicate and make decisions by consensus, rather than follow-the-leader.

It isn’t the only book of its kind: Wikinomics by Don Tapscott considers mass collaboration across the internet.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to the concept of crowd sourcing – a concept which has appeared on my radar several times since – but was previously unknown to me.

All of these ideas highlight what we already know – that we work better together than we do alone.

The idea isn’t without its detractors: some believe that intelligent, trained specialists will always make better decisions than a large, generalist group. That may well be true, but there appears to be an ever increasing number of examples, from an increasing number of authors, suggesting that overall groups fare better than individuals at making good decisions.

All of which has big implications for the workplace. Wikis, discussion forums, team collaboration software are ways to facilitate communication, discussion and better work. Twitter is the latest in a long line of innovative ways of digitally getting people together. Ebay, Facebook and LinkedIn also spring to mind.

Of course great work doesn’t have to be the product of a sizeable group, evidence suggests that many successful endeavours are built on partnerships. Crick and Watson, of DNA fame, are a good example. Bill Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett-Packard are another famous duo. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. I could go on, but you get the idea.

All of which flies in the face of the traditional CEO as leader and saviour of an organisation.

Are times a changing? Is software genuinely helping us work together more effectively? Could we prevent disasters such as the financial meltdown of 2008/09 by listening to the group, rather than the few? The little crowd of recently published books on the subject suggest there is something in this concept, but only time, and consensus, will tell.


  1. Great post Caroline. The question you pose is one that we at Kavi ( try to address using what we call - "Managed Consensus."

    The idea of Managed Consensus stems from our collaboration solution, Kavi Workspace, and is used to explain how role-based collaboration, balloting, and collaboration that closely follows process are used as best practices. This not only optimizes that process, but also has ROI implications borne from several acquired efficiencies that benefit an organization's collaboration.

    For more on Managed Consensus check out

  2. This is an interesting point and although I think there is some value in what you are saying I do have some reservations.
    Firstly I am not aware of any evidence that collaborative insects display any form of creative decision making. As far as I am aware their behaviour entirely innate and although they will work collaboratively to perform complex tasks it is based on inbuilt rules and displays no more decision making than computer program. In more complex organisms that have group behaviour there does appear to be a hierarchy i.e. lions, hyenas, monkeys.
    There has also been some research into the sizes of groups and the sizes of the brains in the animals. I should really point out that these are groups where individuals have a relationship with each other which makes them distance from groups of animals that just herd. The idea being that for a group to be affective the individuals within the group must be able to have a meaning full relationship with the other members of for the group, for the group to work affectively. Based on this humans are supposed to have a group size of around 100 individuals. I suspect that having creative groups even approaching this size will mean that a number of individuals will start to dominate and others will have little impact on decision making; other than emergent.
    I am not really aware on any examples of creative problem solving or conscious decision making being done by large groups on LinkedIn, Facebook or Ebay. Perhaps you could elaborate?
    I think a strong case could be made that the financial meltdown of 2008/9 was caused by vast numbers of people making decision in isolation i.e. offering NINJA (no income no, no job and no assets) loan or taking them, even though there was no real prospect of them being paid back. Not by a few directors sitting in ivory towers; whose decision making is probably greatly affected by the expectations of the markets.

  3. Hi Hadrian

    This is a fascinating area. Decision making is done at all sorts of levels - from creative or problem solving decision making, to mundane every day actions. I sugget that both people and animals make decisions based on what is acceptable to others in the group. This has huge implications for issues such as the recent financial crisis. If not paying back a loan was treated by society as severely as harming another individual, there may have been many fewers poor quality loans given or taken.

    I haven't yet read Smart Swarm, but it is on my reading pile so will report back!

  4. Hi Mitchell

    Thanks for your input regarding collaborative software. Internet technologies are opening up new opportunities to interact and collaborate in ways we have never known before. I suspect we will see much more in this area as we all work together in new ways. Even the humble blog is so much more interesting when people leave comments and challenge points of view.

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