The brainpower of all human being around the earth is vastly underutilized. Organizing production to give more persons more opportunities to use their brains can make a huge contribution to the common good.
“Crowdsourcing” describes some new production arrangements. An interesting example of crowdsourcing is InnoCentive. InnoCentive mediates between companies seeking solutions to R&D problems and persons around the world interested in solving problems. All kinds of persons with all kinds of training have succeeded in solving problems that have been difficult and costly for rigidly structured research organizations to solve.
This shouldn’t be surprising, notes Karim Lakhani, a lecturer in technology and innovation at MIT, who has studied InnoCentive. “The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background,” he says. Lakhani and his three coauthors surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 26 different firms. “We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise,” Lakhani says. He has put his finger on a central tenet of network theory, what pioneering sociologist Mark Granovetter describes as “the strength of weak ties.” The most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.
Academic disciplines are largely cartels for dividing up the knowledge market, lessening intellectual competition, and facilitating symbolic claims to authority. Broader, more fluid organizations of intelligence can make a major contribution to creating replicable, instrumental solutions to practical problems.
This kind of production arrangement has some important limitations. In many cases, persons and organizations don’t recognize the most important problems that they need to solve. Defining the problem is nine-tenths of the solution. That’s a cliché. It’s also true. If you don’t understand what the key problem is, you can’t get someone to solve it. This situation is pervasive in the communications industry.
In addition, for many business problems, solutions are quite difficult to evaluate. Solutions to the generic problem, “how to make a lot money quickly,” can be intelligently dismissed with little effort. Recognizing neglected, decision-relevant knowledge for narrower problems of mundane human behavior (economics) can be simply a matter of logic. But recognizing such knowledge can also require wisdom. Crowdsourcing cannot solve the problem of distinguishing between wisdom of crowds, and folly of crowds.