Wisdom of crowds

6 November 2012
In 2004, the journalist James Surowiecki published one of those business blockbusters that did not seem to be a particularly devastating contribution at first sight, but which went on to become a huge success. The Wisdom of Crowds: 
why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations came ready equipped with 
the compulsory grand-sounding title. But it popularised the concept of ‘crowdsourcing’ – gathering ideas and information from a wide 
array of people to try to reduce the error factor. Surowiecki anticipated the explosion of social media and the democratisation of opinion. Eight years ago, just being able to email senior people directly still seemed like something new and exciting. Facebook was barely coming into existence. But what he had spotted was that ‘crowdsourcing’ was a new and dynamic aspect 
to modern life. Can it work in business, specifically with the question
of dealing with 
potential suppliers? Crowdsourcing could clearly lead to chaos. It sounds a bit random, a little too unplanned. Surely there are enough suppliers out there already? Sending a signal that you are on the lookout for more, and might consider anybody, could lead to an email meltdown in hours. But that said, a closed mind is no use either. Calling only on the same old suppliers – even reliable or favourite ones – will lead to the same 
old results. And in business we believe in ‘continuous improvement’, don’t we? So maybe it is time to throw open the doors of the corporate citadel and let the crowd in. Just a bit. As an experiment. Maybe. Price vs value in the West Coast rail fiasco For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost. And we know how that one ended. The farcical goings on over the botched West Coast rail franchise bids may have been avoided had a mere (in the scheme of things) £1 million been invested in an independent professional audit of the numbers. As the former transport minister Lord Adonis has said, blaming officials when ministers are responsible, indeed, when those ministers have asserted the process is “robust”, is shameful. We are back to our old friends price and value. Sure, the pressure is on in Whitehall to cut back. But short-term savings can lead to longer-term costs. As Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Better Transport told The Observer: “What we have heard is that the government completely changed the nature of the franchise, cut the number of civil servants by one third and then would not allow them to employ external auditors. None of this has been passenger-focused. It has all been about the bottom line,” he said. The public sector has taken enough kicks for one lifetime. It did not need a publicity disaster like this. Yes, by all means cut out waste. But sometimes expertise is a must-have. Not a nice-to-have. And the final bill for sorting out 
the West Coast mess is probably going to run into the hundreds of millions. ☛ Stefan Stern is director of strategy at PR firm Edelman 
and visiting professor of management practice at 
Cass Business School
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