Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Weekly Biz Bookage

Harnessing power of the crowd
Aggregating the intelligence inherent in amateur enthusiasm and professional knowledge leads to innovation.

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Crown Business. Jeff Howe. 320 pages.

Jeff Howe's new book belongs in the same section of your library as The Wisdom Of Crowds, The Starfish and the Spider, Wikinomics, Small Pieces Loosely Joined and Seth Godin's forthcoming Tribes. The subject is group intelligence, or as Howe, a writer for Wired and other publications, calls it, "crowdsourcing.''

It's not the greatest name in the world, but it'll do. More accurately, it's ''aggregated intelligence'' since it's really the product of a bunch of individuals and not a ''crowd.'' And it's at its most powerful when disparate and diverse elements and interests come together (virtually) to solve or just work on a single issue.

But nomenclature aside, Howe is an interesting writer and fine reporter. The text follows his intellectual curiosity as he seeks ways that a diverse multitude acts in concert to predict winners of political contests, solve scientific challenges, distribute music, design clothing and conduct all manner of commerce.

It's interesting to me, because some of his findings are decidedly counterintuitive. For example, non-experts in a variety of fields — engineering, for example — can find solutions to problems that may elude dedicated professionals. In many professions, including journalism, debates about professionals and amateurs abound. Howe establishes that amateur enthusiasts have historically made major contributions to their respective fields. In many instances, their work surpassed the efforts of dedicated professionals. But then, as now, professionals resisted, ridiculed and attempted to devalue the work of nonprofessionals.

Howe writes: "Although the technologies behind this latest surge in amateur activity are new, the impulse itself has a venerable history. More than a century of a professionalized academy has helped obscure the amateur roots of the arts and sciences, which evolved through the accomplishments of men and women who wore the mantle of amateur with great pride, and would have considered being called a professional an insult.''

I hasten to add, though, that enthusiasm doesn't magically impart knowledge and competence. But it's a great start. In fact, among the examples of aggregated intelligence Howe cites is the analysis and summaries done by a ''crowd'' of volunteers who scrutinized Justice Department e-mails and memos, which resulted in Josh Marshall and his Talking Points Memo website (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com) being honored with the George Polk Award for Legal Reporting for its ''tenacious investigative reporting'' in uncovering the rampant politicization of the appointment and retention of U.S. attorneys by the Bush Administration, a conspiracy that had escaped the professional "mainstream media.''

Whether they're political bloggers, after-hours amateur computer researchers, virtual collaborators or fans, engaging the power and enthusiasm of these ''crowds'' is a challenge that many legacy companies like IBM, Procter & Gamble have embraced. And a growing number of new enterprises — YouTube, Facebook, iStock, Marketocracy — were built the same way.

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