Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Wisdom of an FEI Conference Crowd

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

“…chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which, of course, includes the geniuses as well as everyone else) instead. Chances are, it knows.”
- from The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

I’m looking forward to the upcoming 2010 FEI conference in Boston (May 3-5). The accumulated brainpower of the presenters as well as attendees is sure to be tremendous. I wonder what kind of collective wisdom will be in the crowd.

I recently finished reading James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds. Good stuff. Interesting. Thought provoking. James of course has one of the keynote presentations Tuesday morning May 4th at the FEI conference. His “Success Through Synergy” presentation is bound to be a good one.

There is much in the book The Wisdom of Crowds on which I could comment. It is a rich and entertaining text, and clearly well researched. Sprinkled throughout the book, Mr. Surowiecki provides an assortment of real-world examples to illuminate the potential wisdom of crowds. He illustrates his points using academia, a variety of industry examples, personal experience, and other enlightening anecdotes.

This isn’t meant to be a book review though, so I’ll stop short and simply say The Wisdom of Crowds was a good read.

In thinking about the upcoming FEI conference, I can’t help wonder whether the assembled crowd could potentially be wise.

According to Surowiecki, there are four conditions that characterize wise crowds:

Diversity of Opinion – the idea that each person has some private information, even if it’s just some sort of interpretation of known facts

Independence – a person’s opinion is not determined by the opinions of those around him or her

Decentralization – people are able to specialize and draw on what’s referred to as “local knowledge”

Aggregation – a mechanism exists to turn judgments into a collective decision

If a group satisfies these conditions, its judgments are likely to be accurate.

Given the eclectic nature of attendees – different industry and academic backgrounds, different age-groups, different geographies, etc. - at the FEI conference, I imagine the conference crowd could be pretty wise if given the opportunity to make some sort of collective decision. They’ll be a lot of smart people mingling about. But ironically, the individual brainpower of attendees isn’t inherently what would make the crowd wise. A true crowd includes “the geniuses as well as everyone else.” It’s the Diversity of Opinion, Independence, Decentralization, and mechanism for Aggregation that gives a crowd its wisdom.

Paradoxically, the only thing I can think that might diminish the potential overall wisdom of the crowd at FEI, is the fact that everyone assembled is there for the same reason. Might the homogenous nature of our pursuit of innovation skew our collective wisdom? Might we lack a diversity in mental mindset that shields us from potentially powerful breakthroughs?

Perhaps we should invite some people off the street to join us.

If you haven’t already signed-up to attend FEI2010, feel free to use promo code FEI2010CHIP to get a 20% discount.

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