More on social software and consensus

A few days ago I wrote about David Freedman’s piece in Inc magazine, where he,  in Carr-like fashion, suggested that collaboration doesn’t work, that crowds don’t have wisdom, that workgroups fail most often when they’re faced with making a decision. I took some issue with the statements.
I then suggested a number of false or weak forms of consensus, seeking to make the point that real consensus requires trust and commitment, and showing how social software could help us achieve this.

I realise I missed out an important evil form of consensus. Silent and tacit consensus. The Elephant In The Room Without Any Clothes.

And, in a typically serendipitous bloglike way, where do I get the kernel for this post? The same David Freedman. This time, writing in the latest issue of Newsweek on new directions in cancer research.

I quote from the article:

  • Vogelstein notes that cells with genetic scrambling can already be picked up in the blood of cancer patients, which suggests that catching cancer early may end up a matter of a routine blood test. That in itself is a hurdle for researchers, though. “Early diagnosis is undervalued in the research community, because prevention isn’t as dramatic as curing,” says Vogelstein. “Pharmaceutical companies are more interested in treatment, because they make drugs, and they account for a large part of the cancer-research budget.” And so much time, money and expectation have been staked on the oncogene approach that abandoning it would be a demoralizing admission of defeat and, in many cases, a career sinker. “The way science works is, when you end up backing a theory you can’t afford to be wrong or your grant will suffer,” says UCLA researcher Jeffrey H. Miller.
  • Many scientists and funding administrators often simply choose to ignore a promising avenue of research until pressured to do so; careers are more easily advanced by sticking with accepted paths even when they may be wrong. That places the ball squarely in the public’s court, says Benjamin Djulbegovic, a researcher at the University of South Florida who studies clinical trials of new cancer therapies. “There’s dissonance between what researchers study and what patients need,” he says. “When there are competing research agendas, there needs to be public discourse on who should control those agendas.”

I’m not really picking on Freedman, he’s just reporting what researchers and scientists have told him.

For cancer research read complex project. How many times have you seen, or even participated in, a project that was hopelessly wrong from the start, or where fundamentally better options emerge midstream? How many times have you seen teams continue down such blind alleys because they genuinely believe that any other route represents the end of their careers?

Just look at what is being said:

  • Careers are more easily advanced by sticking with accepted paths even when they may be wrong.
  • There’s dissonance between what researchers study and what patients need.

Here’s another place where social software can help in enterprises and even across enterprises. Better connect between customer and designer, patient and researcher. More transparency in the status of projects and programmes, real status reports rather than political Office mashups. A genuine ability to put your hand up and say “but daddy, he’s got no clothes on”.

People who raise their heads above the parapets tend to get shot. This I realise and understand. We already have a number of cases of blogger bashing. But I can’t help feeling that this is changing, and that the change is being brought into existence by the openness and transparency that social software affords us.

Soon, an enterprise that reacts unwisely to truths emanating from their internal and external social software implementations, will pay a heavy market price for their actions. Values count; actions that define values count even more.

5 thoughts on “More on social software and consensus”

  1. I’d love to say that you’re correct here JP but at this time, it’s not realistic. Show me more than the handful of examples we all know and maybe I can be persuaded.

    You/we’re up against powerful vested interests. Big iron etc has a seat at the boardroom table. Joe Blow blogger doesn’t. That’s the difference.

    A friend reminded me of the thinking behind Hammer’s original BPR ideas. As he put it Big R got sidelined for little r. That’s what is more likely to happen.

    It’s not enough to blog and bitch – we don’t have the processes or culture on place to make this work, except in very rare cases which are both top down driven and top down monitored. The antithesis of what you’re suggesting but the business reality nonetheless. Unless of course you have an alternative approach that can work bottom up?

  2. I agree with you on this JP.

    Well, another example from academia is the relationship between String Theory and funding for work in mathematical physics. Some people are saying that other theories are getting underfunded relative to String Theory and moreover claiming that String Theory has not delivered on its initial promise. Others disagree. In any case it does look an awful lot like another ‘elephant in the room’ to me.

    Recent books by Lee Smolin and Peter Woit talk about this. Also, Peter Woit has a blog:

    In my own experience, in the case of both work and academia, one of the biggest causes of disaster is groupthink:

    Groupthink is really pernicious but hard to prevent as it is so often only obvious after the fact. It’s one reason why companies hire external consultants, although personally I would prefer to not do that.

  3. What I find interesting is how the generation that I represent, 20-30 year olds, is reacting against this top down mentality. My generation is recognizing that keeping your head down is not a path to success and career stability. The tools that are gaining precedence online: blogging, social networks, wikis are the ones that my generation and future ones will utilize to support our independent minded efforts to stay in profit centers and not be left behind. My greatest fear, and one that may permeate my generation, is that if we do not iterate rapidly enough our career goals will become unachievable. The expansion of the global economy has created vast new layers of competition and we are taking unacceptable risk if we rely on the hierarchy alone to protect our jobs.

    Of course that may be youthful idealism and over time the risk of raising a family and upsetting the status quo, may outweigh the risk of being left behind economically.

Let me know what you think

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