Saturday, March 31st, 2007
WISE AND STUPID CROWDS, CREATIVITY AND THE IC
So much to try and speed-read through after my brief respite from the blogging treadmill…
One of several posts that caught my eye today was by Steve DeAngelis at ERMB on “Groupthink: Good or Bad?“; not simply because I am a regular reader of Steve’s and of Tom’s but because the premium put upon organizational and individual creativity in the next quarter century will put the high octane in the term ” information economy”. That an “edge” thinker, with the “insider” prominence of Steve, is paying attention to creativity as a subject, bodes well.
[Parenthetical aside: Creativity has two poles. Dr. Richard Florida, whose blog I also enjoy reading, represents analyzing the effects of creativity in the societal and global aggregate. The individual, cognitive processing, aspect of creativity studied by Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is equally, important to understand. The two perspectives, in my view, need to be comprehended and integrated for creativity to be properly cultivated, as they are intimately interrelated]
“When groupthink becomes the dominant paradigm in a business it can crush innovation. Innovators rarely worry about group cohesiveness or getting along. They might not all be clear-eyed pragmatists either. Janis notes that groupthink results in the lack of realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Innovators may be willing to take alternative paths but often those courses of action are not very realistic either. Since the invention of the Internet, critics have started to think about and define groupthink differently. They talk about the power of the many to outthink the few. Patti Waldmeir, writing last year in the Financial Times, discussed this other side of groupthink [“Why groupthink is the genius of the internet,” 9 August 2006]. She begins with a short history lesson and a question:
“Friedrich Hayek, liberal philosopher and economist, was born in the 19th century. Did he accidentally predict the genius of the internet? Back in 1973, when not even the average nerd knew about the net, Hayek was writing: ‘Each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all and?…?civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’ That certainly sounds like a manifesto for blogs and wikis and all the other smart collaborative tools of the information society. Like democracy, they are based on the wonderfully egalitarian notion that even the lowliest among us has something useful to contribute. But can that possibly be true?”
Of course, defining groupthink as “collective wisdom” is far different than defining it as everyone thinking alike. That, however, is how Waldmeir has chosen to define it.”
Interesting. I’m not familiar with Waldmeir but my two cents here is that “groupthink” and “collective wisdom” share the common trait of collectivity but are not otherwise the same cognitive phenomena. The latter, as a market-like function, relies upon the sum of socially atomized interaction; the former is socially integrated interaction, a network or a hierarchy ( or both) which are very different from a market, at least those markets with no or minimal barrier to entry.
The problem with “groupthink” is not the formal or ” official unwritten rule” requirement for everyone to march ideological lockstep. That characteristic is one easily recognized ( and cursed) by those participating within the system which enforces it. For relevant examples, read the historiography of Soviet Studies dealing with ” nomenklatura“, defectors and dissidents from Kravchenko forward, if not earlier. The real dilemma, the cognitive sticking point where the true damage is done, has to due with the institutional variety of what social historian Lawrence Goodwyn termed “the received culture“. Another useful but highly inexact set of terms might be “worldview” or “paradigm”, but writ small.
Any analytical journeymen who values his intellectual integrity is adept at spotting the ritual nonsense of their organization and compensating accordingly. A far more difficult task is self-awarenes in terms of discerning the implicit assumptions in which we have all been inculcated by experience and design. “The wisdom of crowds” functions primarily because anyone is able ( theoretically) to join the crowd at any moment. When that is no longer possible, the crowd grows increasingly stupid as the scenario upon which it is asked to pontificate, broadens and lengthens.
This has implications for America’s intelligence community. The Cold War has left a peculair counterintelligence legacy known as ” the background check”, if you aspire to certain positions in the national security, defense and intelligence communities. It is expensive and redundant and, in many cases, periodic. It served a purpose when the US squared off against the Eastern Bloc. Today, the economic effect of this CI legacy is to slow the velocity of ” new blood” into the IC and particular appointive positions to a crawl, which effectively ” dumbs down” the “crowd”, even in those instances in which the IC managerial hierarchy permits a “crowd” to function. Which, if you are a faithful reader of Haft of the Spear, you realize, ain’t much.
Here’s a wish, from a humble citizen out in flyover country, directed toward the uppermost G-somethings flitting around the new NDI: have someone with both real experience and political juice tackle revitalizing the creativity of the IC analytical process. I say ” process” because I do not see this as a ” people problem” but a bureaucratic one, the analysts have, as a group, good educations and fine brains.
Look for new ways to use them. Vigorously engage outsiders. Make the political case for novelty in methodology to both politicians and the public. Experimentation at this juncture beats cautious perfection.