Extraordinary Collaboration Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Extraordinary Collaboration Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Summary: Image: E.M. Ward, "The South Sea Bubble" (1846) Tate Gallery UKDavid Freeman, who has positive views about disordered individual work practices in his book 'A Perfect Mess', wrote an interesting piece I refer back to a lot in Inc magazine September '06 'What's Next: The Idiocy of Crowds'....


South Sea Bubble Deal Makers Image: E.M. Ward, "The South Sea Bubble" (1846) Tate Gallery UK

David Freeman, who has positive views about disordered individual work practices in his book 'A Perfect Mess', wrote an interesting piece I refer back to a lot in Inc magazine September '06 'What's Next: The Idiocy of Crowds'.

...The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own. Our bias toward groups is counterproductive. And the technology of ubiquitous connectedness is making the problem worse.

I was reminded of David's article by another great mind today - Paul Farrell at Marketwatch, who mentioned Charles Mackay's 1841 South Sea Bubble book, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" when writing about the putative financial recovery currently being discussed.

Dateline: 1720. Breaking news. One day, at the peak of its speculative frenzy, as the "South Sea Bubble" swept through Europe faster than the plague, an "unknown adventurer" in Britain ran this advertisement: "A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is."....

...That crafty 1720 ancestor of today's Wall Street investment bankers and Bernie Madoffs devised what we'd call an "IPO:" He "opened his office to crowds of investors at 9 a.m. the next morning ... closed at 3 p.m. after taking in a fortune ... then left that evening for the Continent ... never to be heard from again."

As is so often the case with IT projects, installing and integrating tools is not the same thing as having a plan for how to use them: buying and setting up is the easy part, utility and uptake the critical factors, and it's easy to miss the obvious problems forming by your actions. Your plan may be flawed and allow unintended consequences, however enthusiastic and bullish you are. Since David Freeman's '06 article the collaboration world has really gathered momentum and some of the vendors are talking up large numbers for the last quarter, but conformity through groupthink is an increasing problem in many installed environments.

This isn't directly caused by these sophisticated new tools of course, any more than a telephone causes gossip, and can be merely old practises like sucking up to leadership, just in a new medium.

There can be a real danger of confusing innovation with workflow, two very different things. There are some very sophisticated tools for capturing innovation that work equally well for groups or individuals. Capturing existing knowledge for contextual use by the broader group in their work is enormously helpful in helping inform staff during their workflows. There is some overlap between these two functions but lack of differentiation can cause major efficiency problems and confusion.

The South Sea Bubble 'unknown adventure' style project is an extremely unwise thing to embark on or invest in, whether using sail boats or collaboration systems. There are protagonists promoting this type of approach for corporate projects, with big tent crowd sourcing and rolling debates.

These types of projects can become a moving feast, with strong minds and alliances overpowering calmer minds. As an alternative, I've counselled clients on visualizing getting all the staff they want to work within an online collaboration space in a single imaginary physical space. Who sits where and what can they see? How should they interact? Who sets the goals and how are they communicated? When should they be in big meetings, working individually or in groups? What is the role of managers and how do they execute actions?

Without this type of strategic and tactical thinking these very powerful tools can become an added layer of complexity in business and cause as many problems as they solve. Groupthink leading to a wild west of wikis and shared drives are a major headache to sort out and diminish the enthusiasm for and effectiveness of future more well thought out collaboration initiatives.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Collaboration, Software


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Read about skunkworks

    A camel is a horse designed by committee.
  • RE: Extraordinary Collaboration Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

    I am glad both Marks and Freeman are pointing out what is so often swept under the rug: more communication between more people is NOT unconditionally better, despite what the current fadware vendors say.

    But I find it puzzling that neither author seems to spend much time explaining [b]why[/b] these fads are so appealing. Isn't it time we addressed the root problem behind them all?

    Both the fadware vendors and their willing victims need to be slapped silly with the Philosopher's Glove (google this).
  • RE: Extraordinary Collaboration Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

    With previous focus group moderating experience, I understand how group think can dampen creativity. However, I don't feel that working in groups should be viewed as counterproductive. With the appropriate ground rules and tools in place, creativity can thrive and results flourish when groups work together.

    I work for an online database company, TrackVia http://www.trackvia.com , and I feel tools like ours help team collaboration efforts succeed. For example, user permissions can be used to control the collaborative effort (i.e. who views what)while anytime/anywhere access makes it easy for remote team members to feel a part of the team.
    Individuals who work in silos aren't as productive as those who work together.
    EDunigan - TrackVia