Book review: No More Consultants

Sometimes it is too easy to think (and write) of knowledge-related activities in the abstract. I am guilty of this myself, and I have many books which address the topic in that way — even when they provide examples it is difficult to think of them in concrete real-world terms. Geoff Parcell and Chris Collison’s new book, No More Consultants, provides a welcome dose of reality.

Bridge below Haddon Hall

This new book follows their earlier work, Learning to Fly, but has a much narrower focus. As a result, I think it is probably even more useful. The premise of No More Consultants is simple. In part it is provided by the book’s subtitle “we know more than we think,” but that is just the background. What Parcell and Collinson have done in the new book is to provide a workable framework for organisations to ascertain when and why they can rely on the expertise and experience of their own people, rather than calling in consultants. (Consultants can relax — the final chapter explains that better organisational understanding can lead to more fruitful engagements.)

The basic tool that Parcell and Collison introduce, explain, and show in use is what they call the ‘River Diagram’. This is a way of visualising the levels of performance in an organisation with regard to defined competences. A large gap between the level competence in different parts of the organisation provides opportunities for knowledge sharing.


In order to get to the river diagram, the organisation needs to identify an area for change and define detailed levels of performance. The next stage is for different parts of the organisation to assess their own level of performance. The sum of all this work is expressed in the river diagram, and each organisational unit can then decide where to focus their efforts to change by calling on the experience of other parts of the organisation (or even externally).

Within this basic framework, Parcell and Collison are able to spend some time fleshing out a number of key techniques, including facilitation, envisioning future developments, and peer assists. They provide a range of examples of the tools and techniques in use, ranging from development of HIV/AIDS programmes in Africa and India to knowledge sharing between Great Ormond St children’s hospital and the Ferrari F1 team. Along the way, they are also able to provide insights into ways of dealing with a number of recurring challenges to change, such as the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

Despite the fact that the book is an invaluable guide to practical knowledge sharing, it is carefully not positioned as such. Because of this, it is more likely to find a receptive audience beyond the normal KM community. This attractiveness is enhanced by the clarity and concreteness with which its central ideas are expressed.

Finally, this book does not just exist between two hard covers. Just as they did with Learning to Fly, Parcell and Collison have created an online presence for the book. Whereas Learning to Fly was complemented by a mailing list, No More Consultants is supported by a more nuanced Ning community. This allows resources related to the book to be shared and discussed, and makes it possible for people using the book to share their experiences in one place. It will be interesting to watch how people use the space to develop the book beyond Parcell and Collison’s core text.

Book review: Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

I read Robert McKee’s book, Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting during my holiday last month. It is a fascinating insight into a crucial part of the film-making process, and has helped me understand movie storytelling much better. If that was all it did, I would recommend it wholeheartedly — by shedding light on the mystery of film, it actually enhances one’s enjoyment of the medium, rather than degrading it. If you are at all interested in film, read it — you won’t regret it.

Bee at work

However, McKee’s book raised two distinct issues for me. One is internal to the book and concerns the way in which we do work. The second is an external one — what makes an expert?

Towards the end of the book, having worked through the elements that make up a satisfying story, McKee turns to the actual mechanics of screenwriting. It’s not as simple as starting at the beginning and working your way to the end. This model is described by McKee as writing from the outside in.

The struggling writer tends to have a way of working that goes something like this: He dreams up an idea, noodles on it for a while, then rushes to the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams until he reaches page 120 and stops…

So the struggling writer gathers friends’ reactions and his own thoughts to start the second draft with this strategy: “How can I keep the six scenes that I love and that everyone else loves and somehow pretzel this film through them in a way that’ll work?” With a little thought he’s back at the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams, but all the while he clings like a drowning man to his favorite scenes until a rewrite comes out the other end. …

The writer then does a third draft and a fourth and a fifth but the process is always the same: He clings to his favorite scenes, twisting a new way of telling them in hopes of finding a story that works. Finally … back come reader reports: “Very nicely written, good crisp actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine attention to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.”

By contrast, writing from the inside out is a much more structured process in which the story stays at the heart.

If, hypothetically and hopefully, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, [successful] writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act — three, four, perhaps more. On these stacks they create the story’s step-outline.

Essentially, the step-outline is used by the writer to describe a single scene on each card. These cards come and go — a scene may be written and rewritten a dozen times on a dozen different cards. The relationship between the cards — which are key scenes and which promote sub-plots, for example — may change over this time. Finally, when the writer is satisfied that the whole things hangs together properly. At this point, the story can be pitched to someone else.

The writer never shows his step-outline to people because it’s a tool, too cryptic for anyone but the writer to follow. Instead, at this critical stage, he wants to pitch or tell his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being.

Once the story is seen to work, it is time for the treatment: each scene is expanded into a readable description. That process allows the story to be honed further until it is ready to be turned into a screenplay — dialogue, directions and all.

The wise writer puts off the writing of dialogue for as long as possible because the premature writing of dialogue chokes creativity.

Writing from the outside in — writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of story — is the least creative method.

The description of this process is fascinating. I think there are elements that can be drawn out for wider use in the work that we do. Rather than draft agreements which are then batted back and forth between parties (in much the same way as the screenplay in the “outside in” example), could we envisage the legal documentation of a transaction from the inside out? Perhaps the following key points might be useful.

  1. Why is this deal being done? (In McKee’s screenwriting terms, this might be the “Inciting Incident”)
  2. What are the major points of agreement (and disagreement) between the parties? (Tension between protagonist and antagonist; character and characterisation)
  3. What other issues are at play? Are there any external pressures — time, regulators, etc?
  4. Can the deal (and the answers to the preceding questions) be summarised easily? (The pitch)
  5. Does everyone agree with the pitch? (Develop into a treatment)
  6. Once the treatment is agreed, the documentation (formal contractual provisions) should easily flow from the treatment.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this would work. However, I have seen enough frustration borne of endless argument over the minutiae of legal drafting to be interested in seeing if an alternative would be any better at conveying the commercial meaning of a transaction into legally enforceable wording. Just as dialogue restricts creativity, so does legal drafting. Once a clause is set in Word and becomes the subject of argument, it is difficult for lawyer and client alike to think creatively about alternative ways of achieving the same object, or even whether that object is actually a desired one — consistent with the ‘story’ of the commercial transaction that is being documented.

The other issue that McKee’s work (his book and the seminars that he runs) raises relates to expertise. McKee is an adept critic and analyst of screenwriting, but he is not a great screenwriter himself. His record at the Internet Movie Database indicates that he has written a couple of TV movies and some TV series episodes. Some of the comments on his work suggest that this apparent lack of success undermines his authority on screenwriting. Others use the traditionally snarky riposte “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both of these reactions miss, I think, the fact that McKee never says “copy me.” Instead, he brings a thorough reading of a range of good and poor films. (In fact, one could be concerned by the fact that he relies excessively on Chinatown for examples, were it not for the impressive list of films referenced in less detail but obviously equally well understood.) Out of that reading, he extracts incredible insight, which should be regarded more highly, not less, for the simplicity with which it is distilled into a set of clearly understood principles.

That, I think is part of the essence of expertise — insight translated into clarity, so that one’s audience can hope to achieve the same insight. That is the opposite of the traditional obfuscation which many experts (many in the field of law, I am sorry to say) typically indulge in.

Another aspect of expertise, which needs to be harnessed in the service of insight and clarity, is passion or enthusiasm for the subject. That passion is clearly evident in McKee’s book. He wants to eradicate poor storytelling in the movies by making the basic element — the screenplay — better. According to the Wikipedia article on him, McKee’s insights are not all especially original. I do not think this necessarily matters — his passion brings them to life more vividly than their originators were able to.

There is clearly more to expertise than just insight and passion, but McKee’s work shows how those elements in combination with even a limited body of material can generate real value.

Book review: Made to Stick

This has been a Summer of story for me. Back in June, I attended a workshop run by Shawn Callahan on “Storytelling for Business Leaders”. I was vaguely aware (from reading Shawn’s blog if nothing else) of the power of narrative, but he drew out the key elements really well. Now I realise that a lot of what I thought were stories were in fact limp examples. Even a good example can have some persuasive power, but a story with the right elements is by its nature indisputable.

Do not sit -- Haddon Hall

Towards the end of the workshop, Shawn referred positively to Made to Stick, which prompted me to move it from my wishlist and actually buy it. Written by two brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, it draws out six characteristics of ideas that stick in people’s minds. (The archetype for sticky ideas is provided by a wealth of urban legends, which prove staggeringly resistant to rebuttal.) Pleasingly, the Heaths have made sure the initial letters of these characteristics form a neat mnemonic SUCCESs.

  • S: Simple
  • U: Unexpected
  • C: Concrete
  • C: Credible
  • E: Emotional
  • S: Stories

There is a bit of circularity here: the Heaths advocate the story form both as a container for the other characteristics and as a characteristic in itself.

The book is an easy read, because it is well constructed (naturally, it is suffused with stories and examples) not because it is simplistic. The authors make sure that we understand that there is some real analysis underpinning this work. In some respects, therefore, this can be read as a companion, practical, volume to Predictably Irrational. There is a close relationship between our human respect for stories and the behavioural economics of Dan Ariely. (And Ariely himself uses a lot of story-based examples.)

For me, the key message of the book (and of Shawn’s workshop) is that you can’t argue against a story — that is someone’s experience, not a carefully constructed debating point. That’s why we can’t make horses drink — all we have available to us is blunt persuasion — if we could tell them stories, we could engage more usefully with them.

Recently Mary Abraham highlighted a real issue we often face in convincing people that something is good for them in her post “The Four Chickens Problem.” She likens the problems we have persuading people of the merits of Enterprise 2.0 (although any “jam tomorrow” solution is likely to raise similar issues) to the challenges faced by organisations trying to eradicate malaria.

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets.

Why do they want chickens rather than nets? Because the immediate concrete need for food is more obvious than the future abstract goal of eliminating disease. Mary’s solution to similar problems in the business context centres on persuasion.

In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people. You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.

In a comment on Mary’s post, Jack Vinson proposes another approach, using a coaching model:

Even better than educating people is to lead them through a discussion of the core problems and mechanisms for their solution. It is so much more effective to have them come up with the solution, even if it is the same one you would have presented 30 minutes ago. Then you have a much better chance of challenging the solution and presenting its benefits / drawbacks, as you will have their general agreement that it is the right thing to do.

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

You may have noticed that I have been including images in my posts recently. In part this is just to please myself — apart from one (attributed) example, they are all pictures that I have taken. Largely, however, it is a distraction from my usually wordy posts. Selecting the image can be a bit of a challenge — I like to see a link between the image and the text.  This one was easy.

Earlier this month, we took advantage of the sun to visit a bit of local history, Haddon Hall (famous for being the backdrop to a number of period dramas). Like many such places, they need persuade visitors to be careful with the historic furnishings. The normal approach to this problem is to rope things off or to put notices on chairs telling people not to sit on them. Instead, what they have done at Haddon Hall is simply to place a dried teasel on the chairs and benches. Nobody would sit on a teasel, would they? Without an unsightly rope or notice, they have communicated an important message to visitors. A message made to stick.

So, if you have ideas you need to communicate, Made to Stick will help immensely — it is certainly a worthwhile purchase for people in a range of roles. For those interested in storytelling as a leadership tool, Shawn is running a webinar “Three Questions We Usually Get from Leaders About Storytelling: Reflections, Discussion & Tools” with Terrence Gargiulo next month. (The webinar is running twice, to make the most of timezones.)

Are your leaders great storytellers? And, why should you care anyway?

With over forty years of combined experience, two of the world’s leading narrative consultants divulge some of what they have learned. Join Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and Terrence Gargiulo of for a 45-minute rousing interactive discussion rich with examples and practical tools.

I will be attending the webinar to continue my Summer of story; I’m looking forward to it.

Book Review: Generation Blend

I have already voiced my scepticism about Generation Y, so it may seem odd that I chose to buy Rob Salkowitz’s book Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. However, there is a lot in this book that does not depend on an uncritical acceptance of the “generations” thesis. It provides a sound practical basis for any business that wants to, in Salkowitz’s words, “develop practices and deploy technology to attract, motivate, and empower workers of all ages.”

As one might expect, underpinning Generation Blend is the thesis that there are clear generational (not age-related) differences that affect how people approach and use technology. In this, Salkowitz builds on Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. However, generational differences are not the starting point for the book. Instead, Salkowitz begins by showing how technology itself has changed the working environment irrevocably. In doing so, he establishes the purpose of the book: to allow organisations to develop the most suitable strategy to help their people to cope with those changes (and the many more to come).

Organizations invest in succeeding waves of new technology — and thus subject their workers to waves of changes in their lives and workstyles — to increase their productivity and competitiveness. Historically, productivity has increased when new technology replaced labor-intensive processes, first with mechanical machinery, and now electronic information systems. (p. 24)

Dave Snowden has started an interesting analysis of these waves of change, and Andrew McAfee’s research shows that IT makes a difference for organisations. What Salkowitz does in Generation Blend is to provide real, practical, insights into the way in which organisations can make the most of the abilities of all generations when faced with new technology. When he does discuss the generations, it is important to remember that his perspective is entirely a US-centric one. That said, the rest of the book is generally applicable. This is Salkowitz’s strength — he recognises that there are real exceptions to the broad brush of generational study, and his guidance focuses on clear issues with which it is difficult to disagree. As one of the section headings puts it, “software complexity restricts the talent pool,” so the target is to accommodate different generational approaches in order to loosen that restriction. Chapter 3 of the book closes with a set of tables outlining different generational attributes. I found these very useful in that they focused the mind on the behaviours and attitudes affecting people’s approach to technology, rather than as a hard-and-fast description of the different generations.

Salkowitz’s approach can be illuminated by comparing three passages on blogging.

The open, unsupervised quality of blogs can be deeply unsettling to people who have internalized the notion that good information comes only from trusted institutions, credentialed individuals, or valid ideological perspectives. (p. 82)

On the other hand:

Blogs and wikis create an environment where unofficial and uncredentialed contributors stand at eye level with traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge. This is perfectly natural to GenXers, who believe that performance and competence should be the sole criteria for authority. (p. 147)

And, quoting Dave Pollard with approval:

“I’d always expected that the younger and more tech-savvy people in any organization would be able to show (not tell) the older and more tech-wary people how to use new tools easily and effectively. But in thirty years in business, I’ve almost never seen this happen. Generation Millennium will use IM, blogs, and personal web pages (internal or on public sites like LinkedIn, MySpace and FaceBook) whether they’re officially sanctioned or not, but they won’t be evangelists for these tools.” (p. 216)

 There is here, I think, a sense of Salkowitz’s desire to engage older workers as well as his concern that unwarranted assumptions about younger people’s affinity with technology could lead businesses towards the wrong courses of action.

At the heart of Generation Blend is a critique of existing technology, in which Salkowitz points out that current business software has a number of common characteristics:

  • It tends to be complex and overladen with features
  • It focuses on efficiency
  • It is driven by the need to perform tasks
  • It supports a work/life balance that is “essentially a one-way flow of work into life” (p. 147)

These characteristics have come about, Salkowitz argues, because the technology has largely been produced by and for programmers whose values and culture:

…independence, obsession with efficiency as a way to save personal time and effort, low priority on interpersonal communication skills, focus on outcomes rather than process (such as meetings or showing up on a regular schedule), seeing risk in a positive light, desire to dominate through competence — sound like the thumbnail descriptions of Generation X tossed out by management analysts. (p. 149)

Since this group is clearly comfortable with technology, and is also increasingly moving into leadership and management roles, Salkowitz provides them with guidance on making technology accessible to older workers and on making the most of the skills and insights of younger workers. He does this in general terms throughout the book, but most convincingly in the final three chapters. Two of these use narrative to show how (a) the fear can be taken out of technology for older people and (b) the younger generation can be involved directly in defining organisational strategy.

In the first of these chapters, Salkowitz describes a non-profit New York initiative, OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which trains older people in newer technologies, so that they can comfortably move into roles where those skills are needed. OATS has found that understanding the learning style of these people allows them to pick up software skills much more quickly than is commonly assumed.

While younger people learn technology by handson experimentation and trial and error, [Thomas] Kamber [OATS founder] and his team find that older learners prefer information in step-by-step instructions and value written documentation. (p. 167)

At the other end of the generational scale, Salkowitz starts with a statement that almost reads like a manifesto:

Millennials may be objects of study, but they are also, increasingly, participants in the dialogue, and it is silly (and rude) for organizations to talk about them as if they are not already in the room. (p. 190)

He goes on to illustrate the point with an account of Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future, which was a “structured weeklong exercise around the future of work,” which the company used to help it understand how its strategy should develop in the future. It was judged to be a success by bringing new perspectives to the company as well as showing Microsoft to be a thought leader in this area.

…the organizational commitment to engage with Millennials as partners in the formation of a strategic vision can be as valuable as the direct knowledge gained from the engagement. Strategic planning is a crucial discipline for organizations operating in an uncertain world. When it is a closed process, conducted by experts and senior people (who inevitably bring their generational biases with them), it runs a greater risk of missing emergent trends or misjudging the potential for discontinuities that could disrupt the entire global environment. Opening up the planning process to younger perspectives as a matter of course rather than novelty hedges against the risks of generational myopia and also sends a strong positive signal to members of the rising generation. (p. 209)

Generation Blend ends with a clear exposition of the key issues that organisations need to address in order to make the most of their workers of all ages and the technology they use.

Organizations looking to effectively manage across the age gap in an increasingly sophisticated connected information workplace should ask themselves five questions:

  1. Are you clearly explaining the benefits of technology?
  2. Are you providing a business context for your technology policies?
  3. Are you making technology accessible to different workstyles?
  4. Does your organizational culture support your technology strategy?
  5. Are you building bridges instead of walls? (p. 212)

The last two of these are particularly interesting. In discussing organisational culture, Salkowitz includes careful consideration of knowledge management activities, especially using Web 2.0 tools. He is confident that workers of all generations will adapt to this approach to KM at a personal level, but points to real challenges: “[t]he real difficulties… are rooted in the business model and in the way that individual people see their jobs.” (p. 229) For Salkowitz, the solution is for the organisation to make a real and visible investment in knowledge activities — he points to the use of PSLs in UK law firms as one example of this approach. Given the tension between social and market norms that I commented on yesterday, I wonder how far this approach can be pushed successfully.

Running through Generation Blend is a thread of involvement and engagement. Salkowitz consistently advocates management approaches that accommodate different ways of extracting value from technology at work. This thread emerges in the final section of the book as an exhortation to use the best of all generations to work together for the organisation — building bridges rather than walls.

Left to themselves, workers of different ages will apply their own preconceptions and experiences of technology at work, sometimes leading to conflict and misunderstanding when generational priorities diverge. But when management demonstrates a commitment to respecting both the expectations of younger workers and the concerns of more experienced workers around technology, organizations can effectively combine the tech-savvy of the young with the knowledge and wisdom of the old in ways that make the organization more competitive, more resilient to external change, more efficient, and more open. (p. 231)

I think he is right in this, but it will be a challenge for many organizations to do this effectively, especially when they are distracted by seismic changes outside. My gut feeling is that those businesses that work hard at the internal stuff will find that their workforce is better able to deal with those external forces.

Social norms and knowledge sharing

Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, is a really eye-opening read. He deconstructs a number of traditional economic constructs with humour and insight. Most importantly, he uses careful experimentation to demonstrate exactly how irrational we are.

In the video above, Ariely talks about the difference between people’s behaviour in a situation governed by social norms by comparison with market norms. He examines this difference in Chapter 4 of the book: “The Cost of Social Norms.” Reading this chapter, I thought I had found the answer to why incentives do not work in knowledge management initiatives.

Ariely’s argument is that in a situation governed by social norms, people will help without thought of a financial reward. On the other hand, interactions governed by market norms are very different.

The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean — in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism — but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for — that’s just the way it is. (p. 68)

The trouble is that whilst knowledge sharing is at its heart a social activity, it takes place in an environment governed by market norms — the workplace. Naturally enough, there is an inclination to want to recognise good knowledge behaviours in the only way that an employer knows: financially. As Neil Richards has explained, this just does not work. Ariely describes an experiment in which people were asked to perform a mundane and fruitless task on a computer. One group was paid $5 for the task, another group just 50¢, and a third was asked to do it as a favour. The productivity of the $5 group was slightly lower than the ‘favour’ group, but the 50¢ group was over 50% less productive than the others.

Perhaps we should have anticipated this. There are many examples to show that people will work much more for a cause than for cash. A few years ago, for instance, the AARP asked some lawyers if they would offer less expensive services to needy retirees, at something like $30 an hour. The lawyers said no. Then the program manager at AARP had a brilliant idea: he asked the lawyers if they would offer free services to needy retirees. Overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes.

What was going on here? How could zero dollars be more attractive than $30? When money was mentioned, the lawyers used market norms and found the offer lacking, relative to their market salary. When no money was mentioned they used social norms and were willing to volunteer their time. Why didn’t they just accept $30, thinking of themselves as volunteers who received $30? Because once market norms enter our considerations, social norms depart. (p. 71, my emphasis)

It is possible to use gifts to thank people for their efforts, and still stay inside the social norms. However, if one suggests that the gift has a monetary value, the market norms reassert themselves. Although Ariely doesn’t say so, I suspect that using small-scale rewards on a regular basis (such as a box of chocolates for the best contribution to know-how every month) would also be regarded as market-related. Gifts need to be a surprise to be valued as part of a social interaction.

Later in this chapter, Ariely describes how a social situation can take a long time to recover from being drawn into the market. He tells a story of a childrens’ nursery that had previously used social sanctions (guit, mainly) to control parents who picked their children up late. When the nursery started to impose fines for lateness instead, parents applied market thinking and the incidences of lateness increased. When the fines were removed, the parents continued to pick up late as they had done in the fines era — guilt no longer worked as a sanction.

One problem for some law firms is that they have given knowledge management responsibilities to a specific group of people (Professional Support Lawyers, or equivalent). Because those people (rewarded according to the market) have a defined role, it can be difficult to motivate others in the firm to share knowledge as a social obligation. Unfortunately, the market value of effective knowledge sharing is almost certainly more than most employers could afford. “Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.” (p. 86)

Having established that the balance between social and market norms is a very senstive one, Ariely is still convinced that there is a real place for social norms in the workplace.

If corporations started thinking in terms of social norms, they would realize that these norms build loyalty and — more important — make people want to extend themselves to the degree that corporations need today: to be flexible, concerned, and willing to pitch in. That’s what a social relatinonship delivers. (p. 83)

As well as these thoughts on knowledge sharing in the enterprise, Ariely’s chapter explains much to me about the success of so-called social computing tools (and also why they are well-named). They play on the genuine human desire to comply with social norms of exchange, assistance, generosity and collaboration. The challenge is to import this desire into the organisational context, without running into market norms.

Book review: Infotopia

I had Cass R. Sunstein’s book, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge on my wish-list at Amazon for some time before finally purchasing it. I wish I had done so sooner: it sheds valuable light on key aspects of knowledge creation, decision-making and social software.

Sunstein’s raw material is simple: Condorcet’s Jury Theorem ; some studies of deliberative groups; Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar ; and a few examples of powerful uses of technology (especially wikis and prediction markets). By combining these he creates a book dedicated to answering a few simple questions. Why do random groups tend to produce better decisions than carefully constructed discussions? Why does open source software and thinking tend to be more robust than that produced by closed processes?

The book starts by exploring and expanding on Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which holds as follows (as described in Wikipedia).

The assumptions of the theorem are that a group wishes to reach a decision by majority vote. One of the two outcomes of the vote is correct, and each voter has an independent probability p of voting for the correct decision. The theorem asks how many voters we should include in the group. The result depends on whether p is greater than or less than 1/2:

  • If p is greater than 1/2 (each voter is more likely than not to vote correctly), then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. In the limit, the probability that the majority votes correctly approaches 1 as the number of voters increases.
  • On the other hand, if p is less than 1/2 (each voter is more likely than not to vote incorrectly), then adding more voters makes things worse: the optimal jury consists of a single voter.

In doing so, Sunstein puts a useful gloss on the raw mathematics of Condorcet.

[I]t would wrong to suggest that the best approach to hard questions is to ask a large number of people and to take the average answer. That approach is only likely to work under distinctive circumstances: those in which many or most people are more likely than not to be right… In all of these cases, there is reason to trust the people being asked, and hence the average answer is likely to be right.

But it would make no sense to make policy by asking everyone in the world whether the United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol, or whether genetic engineering poses serious risks… In these cases, there is a great risk that error and confusion will be replicated at the level of group averages. (pp42-43)

Crucially for Sunstein, the consulted group needs to have real (even if only fragmented) information about the facts at issue. The further we get from this position — either because the answer sought is not fact-based or because there is an increasing risk of systematic error or misinterpretation — the less likely it is that a Condorcet approach will work.

Sunstein then turns to the deliberative approach. Can groups (of experts or of generalists) reach reliably good conclusions by discussing the options available? Here he gives the game away in advance by the heading of Chapter 2: “The Surprising Failure of Deliberating Groups.” Sunstein’s case is that the process of deliberation actually works against the kinds of outcome that we intuitively think it should promote: accurate decision-making, open sharing of information, and improved quality of discussion, when compared to random groups.

  1. It cannot be shown that deliberating groups generally arrive at the truth…
  2. Much of the time, deliberating groups do quite poorly at aggregating the information that their members have…
  3. Deliberating groups sometimes outperform statistical groups, but sometimes the opposite is the case. (pp57-58)

These problems are, broadly speaking, a consequence of human psychology and group behaviours. In reaching these conclusions, Sunstein examines a wealth of research in those areas. I have a slight reservation about this aspect of the book. Here and elsewhere research studies and reports are mentioned, but I felt the absence of any context. Because this is not a scientific monograph, it is perhaps reasonable for there not to be a comprehensive analysis of all the research on the topics under discussion. However, it is not possible to judge from the material Sunstein uses how much has been selected to support his argument. I am willing to trust him, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable doing so — particularly in view of the fact that the book depends significantly on exposing and challenging received opinion.

Having laid the theoretical foundations, Sunstein moves on to practical matters. He focuses on two areas: prediction markets and social and open source software. These chapters are fascinating. In his treatment of prediction markets, Sunstein revels in showing how markets in information match Hayek’s assertions about markets generally. However, he also highlights the problems that can be caused when the purity of the market can affect the quality of information sharing. These markets are as subject to manipulation, bias and bubbles as traditional ones. Within certain parameters, though, Sunstein is confident.

Prediction markets remain in their early stages. … [I]n many domains, they perform extremely well — better than surveys, better than deliberating groups, better than experts. Their promise is most likely to be realized when knowledge is genuinely dispersed, when a wide range of people know relevant facts, and when their incentives lead them to reveal, through investments, what they know. (p144)

There is a curious detour in the middle of this chapter, in which Sunstein looks at the way Hayek’s views on markets relate to the persistence of information over time (rather than space, which is the focus of the rest of the book) and compares them to Edmund Burke’s assertion that long-standing traditions are generally to be preferred, being rooted in the judgments of particular people tested over time.  Ultimately, Sunstein is less convinced by Hayek’s proximity to Burke on the question of meritorious persistence.

What Hayek and Burke appear to miss is that traditional practices are often the congealed product of earlier informational or reputational cascades. Often morality consists of inefficient or unjust practices defended by entrenched groups and factions. …

In many cases, traditions last not because they are excellent, but because influential people are averse to change and because of the sheer burdens of transition to a better state. It is for this reason that celebrations of traditions have always met an ambivalent reaction in free countries. (p125)

It was particularly striking to me that Sunstein invoked Burke at this stage, as he had earlier ignored the Englishman’s dictum on representative democracy in preference to the identical view expressed by Roger Sherman in the first US Congress:

I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.

Sunstein has previously relied on Sherman’s words in his works The Partial Constitution (1993: 22) and (2002: 41), so we should give him some credit for recycling.

When Sunstein turns to examine technology, he treads much more familiar ground. His analysis owes much to Eric Raymond’s, topped up with lessons learned from Wikipedia, Intellipedia and similar efforts, and a critique of blogs as mechanisms for exaggerating apparent consensus. There is a long-standing tradition of approval of open source and similar processes coupled with denigration of proprietary and closed development. (I even contributed to the tradition myself in a critique of competing Internet standards processes.) Sunstein adds little here, beyond publicising the existing views and, much more importantly, linking them to his more abstract material. This really makes a difference, but I am still unsure why people deliberating together in groups do a poorer job of reaching the right conclusion than those contributing openly to a wiki, to open source software development or to an Internet standards process. What is different? Is it the quasi-anonymity offered by the latter processes? Or is it a consequence of politicisation (in the most general sense) of the deliberative process. Sunstein doesn’t even pose these questions, let alone offer an answer.

What he does do, in his final chapter, is to start to offer solutions for the flawed deliberative process. He recognises that, rightly or wrongly, this tradition is not going away. Instead he suggests ways in which the improved effectiveness of some of the other approaches in the book can be introduced into deliberating groups. Unfortunately, this chapter is tantalisingly short. I would have appreciated more here — Sunstein’s solutions are just too sketchy.

Infotopia provides a valuable and informative summary of some important concepts. Its measured and thoughtful tone stands out amongst works of a more evangelical nature that cover similar ground, and is therefore highly recommended. There are gaps, but perhaps in time those will be filled by others.