"Crowds are smartest when the people in them are encouraged to act as individuals as much as possible," says James Surowiecki, author of the best-selling business book The Wisdom of Crowds and the opening keynote presenter at the MarkLogic User Conference yesterday, in San Francisco.

In his keynote address James explained why the power of the crowd trumps individual contributions 90% of the time. Let's have a look.

James Surowiecki, a financial industry consultant and researcher in the emerging field of crowdsourcing, addressed an enthusiastic audience of more than 500 attendees, warning them to "avoid relying on individuals or small groups of elite employees to solve problems."

During his talk, he provided several examples of why relying on the traditional approach to problem solving "is not usually going to give you the best answer, and may, more often than not, give you totally wrong answers."

What is Crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourcing is "the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call," according to Wikipedia, which is an excellent example of crowdsourcing in action, said Surowiecki.

The Power of the Crowd

To understand the power of the crowd one only need to look to the popular television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where individual contestants who get stumped can use a "lifeline" -- one type of which is to seek the wisdom of the audience for help answering the question. As it turns out, the audience is provides the contestants the right answer 90% of the time.

Wikipedia is a fascinating example of trusting the crowd to provide you with the right answers, and the majority of the time, they do.

NASA has also used crowd-sourcing to accelerate the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project timelines. NASA discovered that the crowd was able to solve their challenge faster and as accurately as they would expect if they hired professional scientists to tackle the task.

"The more diverse a group is, the smarter and better their results will be," said Surowiecki.

Already Used in the Real World

Surwiecki provided numerous examples of how organizations in the pharmaceutical, political, science and information technology sectors are using crowdsourcing to predict outcomes, develop new ideas, and find solutions to existing problems. And, it's not that new. Companies like Eli Lilly has been doing it for years (for research and development) with great success.

Crowdsourcing is especially useful in big organizations, because there's so much information and it's so hard to get to -- including information locked inside of the brains of employees, partners, customers.

Diversity is the Key

"Diversity is the key to crowdsourcing success," says Surowiecki. "It makes sense to take diversity of training, perspective, experience, geography, age, gender... into account." When you do, he says, you'll find much better answers to your challenges.

Diversity will help you avoid group-think. This problem typically occurs when members in a group get too comfortable with one another and the more they discuss, the more they start to agree.

There's a need for a voice of dissent -- a devil's advocate of sorts. "You'll have more conflict and it will be harder to manage these groups," Suroweicki says, "but the benefits are worth the effort."

Removes Knowledge Barriers

He talked a bit about the human problems behind knowledge sharing. Because information is power, some folks are reluctant to share for fear they could be replaced. He also discussed the problems associated with corporate cultures that support the notion that everyone should get along and come to consensus, which doesn't lead to the best answers.

Loudmouth Smackdown Benefit

According to Surowiecki crowds are smartest when people in them "act as individuals as much as possible." But he also warned about talkative people, you know the ones. They are the squeaky wheels who tend to dominate the conversation.

"Talkative people have an inordinate impact on group discussions. This would be okay if talkative people were smarter, but there's no evidence to support the contention that talkative people are any more intelligent than the rest of us." Depending on how crowdsourcing is implemented, the volume of such voices can be scaled down to size. How nice.

Crowdsourcing tickle your fancy? Learn more at www.crowdsourcethis.com.

More Good Stuff at MarkLogic Conference

Surowiecki was an excellent addition to the roster of this event and captivated the audience. His examples will provide valuable food for thought for those attending the event -- and those of you who couldn't make it -- who are attempting to tackle complex content and data challenges.