Wikipedia, Amazon, and the Linux operating system all derive enormous value from a simple, powerful, Web-enabled phenomenon: the generation of content and ideas, not by paid professionals, but by enthusiastic, knowledgeable, unpaid members of the general public. All kinds of businesses, from IBM to countercultural record companies, want to know more about how this resource can be tapped. But can a book about the wisdom of crowds be written by a crowd?
“It’s a complicated–and very interesting–question,” says Jon Spector, CEO of the Conference Board, the business group that publishes the Consumer Confidence Index.
To answer that question, Spector teamed up with Barry Libert, CEO of Shared Insights, which builds and manages corporate social networks and virtual communities. They also sought the help of Thomas W. Malone, who as the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI) has studied information technology and its effect on business organizations. In the fall of 2006, CCI collaborated with the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to design the We Are Smarter website, which recruited participants in a communal writing project, collected their stories and ideas, and hosted blogs and podcasts. Thousands of first-hand sources contributed information and helped chew it over.
By spring 2007, more than 4,000 people had registered on the site. We Are Smarter than Me, the slim volume resulting from their work, features accounts of successful corporate collaborations with outsiders. We learn, for instance, how Virgin Mobile USA turned customer feedback into a machine for generating marketing buzz, how Procter and Gamble draws research ideas from people outside the company, and how MasterCard began soliciting customer-generated themes for its “priceless” ads.
But the varied responses from a host of collaborators became a problem of its own. “We had two original objectives,” Spector explains. “Number one was to see if a group could produce a coherent book via a wiki-like structure. Number two was to get it done on time. Unfortunately, two was in conflict with one.”
“The early concepts were easy,” Spector says, but he and his colleagues struggled to organize the incoming ideas. And their method of structuring chapters (they organized them by business area but also allowed participants to add new chapters) proved more time-consuming than the book’s deadline would allow.
Malone agrees that the project organizers had trouble with issues inherent in getting a group to write a book–for example, the possibility of redundant content. As a result, responsibility for the writing fell back to Spector, Libert and a team of professional writers. “I think a good book did get written, just not written in the way we had hoped when we started the experiment,” says Malone. “I feel in a certain sense we did not succeed.” Still, he says that they took significant steps toward figuring out the process.
Perhaps they’ll get their chance to try again. Though Malone says that CCI will not be involved in producing a second book, there is a page soliciting new ideas for Book Two on wearesmarter.org.