The Blog

  • May 6, 2009
  • Medieval wisdom of crowds

    I wanted to write a piece about the wisdom of crowds for a long time but I needed a clip from Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” to make it work.  After a lot of procrastinating I went to YouTube, did the hard work of reviewing all of the Python clips and found the right one.  There is no limit to the effort I will make to write a piece — this research was physically demanding and my sides still ache.

    If you are a Python fan you might want to review the clip for sheer fun and even if wacky British humor is not your cup of tea, watching the clip will enhance your understanding of what I am going to say.  So, go ahead, take a look.  I will wait.  Really, it’s OK, there’s a recession on and I have the time.  It’s a little over four minutes.

    Ok, welcome back.

    If you cheated and just forged ahead without the benefit of Michael Palin and the gang, the clip is a medieval mob scene in which the mob, convinced that a woman is a witch, asks permission from the local knight to burn the witch at the stake.  The knight is skeptical of the claim.  The mob has dressed the poor woman in a witch’s costume and given her a conical hat and fake carrot nose.

    The whole scene is contrived and at first you expect the knight through tortured reasoning with the crowd to convince them that the woman is not a witch.  I will leave it to you to watch the clip to find out how the woman is nonetheless condemned and the gods of comedy are served.

    My point for a long time, which this clip illustrates, has been that the wisdom of crowds is only as good as the crowd.  That’s because you can’t get new information by asking what people already know.  Those people believed in witches, even the knight, so it was easy to proceed from that error to a burning at the stake.  New information and, hopefully truth, comes from research including setting up an experiment, collecting data and then careful and dispassionate analysis of the data.

    Monty Python’s mob simply illustrates that a crowd can pool its existing knowledgebase to provide accurate feedback of group-think.  It also cleverly illustrates Mark Twain’s brilliant observation that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  At least by Twain’s time we weren’t burning witches.

    My point is that in our rush to embrace all things social we run the risk of acting — with all good intentions — like that mob and that’s especially unhelpful because no one has been given the knight’s job of playing devil’s advocate.  I think we can take too much as fact just because it comes from a community of customers, especially if that community has no controls. 

    To be sure, there are valid and useful things to be gleaned from customer feedback but feedback is only the first step.  Ideally, feedback should give us some testable hypotheses from which we can extract true knowledge.  All the testing in the world would not have helped the woman in the movie, but that’s the essence of comedy.

    The film clip, and the wisdom of crowds, shows the difference between feedback and discovery.  We can run our companies pretty well using feedback most of the time but unless there is a little discovery mixed in and unless the lessons of the discovery process are put to use, we can find ourselves in trouble.

    Last week we saw an example.  Chrysler got ready for a bankruptcy filing and GM is not far behind.  In their histories, both companies spent prodigious sums gathering customer feedback.  It showed how much customers liked big cars (maybe that’s all they knew?) and the car companies used the information to justify building even bigger cars and trucks.  I wonder if these companies bothered to ask what people felt about climate change or the high price of fuel.  Since public perception and opinion can change much faster than a company can design and develop cars with higher fuel efficiency, it might have been good to know those things.

    Customers can tell us an awful lot but we have to ask the right questions and we have to step out of our contemporary biases.  Technology can do a lot to automate and speed up the asking process but the human element is still important.  We still have to ask the right questions and not flinch when we get the answers.

    Published: 14 years ago


    • May 6th, 2009 at 3:50 pm    


      Speaking of the wisdom of crowds, the conventional wisdom is that US car companies are doing badly because they make large cars, while Japanese companies are doing well because they make Priuses.

      But when you look at Japanese cars offered in America, they look a lot like US cars. Toyota Camry=Ford Taurus=Honda Accord=Nissan Maxima. Ford, GM, Nissan, Toyota trucks look alike and weigh as much. Sure, Toyota offers the Prius that gets good stop-and-go mileage but no better highway mileage than other cars. But Priuses were only 1% of US auto sales in 2008.

      What’s hurt US automakers is what is driving US state, and local governments bankrupt – grossly inflated and unsustainable personnel costs. It was widely reported that US car companies pay an average of $75/hour in salary and benefits for line workers, compared to $49/hour at Japanese-owned factories in the US.

      This is directly attributable to unions negotiating high wages, pensions, and health insurance in good times, and companies and governments now have no ability to drive those costs back down in bad times.

      As is the case now with governments trying to increase taxes to balance their budgets, car company critics are looking at the revenue side of the balance sheet, when they should be looking at the expense side. And with personnel costs becoming a larger share of the expense side, the only way to turn a profit will be to take an axe to personnel costs.


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