Collective intelligence, diversity, and social networks

Originally published as “Hold that thought”
(Part 5 of “TechCrunch, disrupted”)

The day after TechCrunch Disrupt ended, a fascinating study on “collective intelligence” led by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University appeared in Science.   The researchers found that a group’s success in solving problems wasn’t correlated to the average intelligence of the group, or the IQ of the smartest person.  Instead, it was related to “social sensitivity”, whether everybody got to participate in the discussions, and the number of women in the group.

The article’s behind a paywall, but Malicia Rogue’s On savvy and groups discusses it in detail and provides a lot of background.  There’s an excellent discussion on GeekFeminism, a podcast on CBC, and good articles in National Geographic, NPR, Science Daily, and The Globe and Mail.

Nobody mentioned it in the press coverage, but these results also align with Scott Page’s underlying model of the value of cognitive diversity in problem solving. Diversity = Productivity summarizes Scott’s work showing why diverse teams perform better than individual experts or even teams of experts — if they can work together effectively, that is.*   So while there’s a lot more to discuss about this study, for now let’s just accept its results at face value and hypothesize that they apply to larger teams as well.

Now consider a group that we’ll call “TechCrunch and friends”.  How effective would we expect them to be at problem solving?

  • They’re not known for their social sensitivity
  • A few people do a disproportionate share of the talking and a lot of others don’t get to speak much
  • There aren’t a lot of women involved

Hmm, in fact now that I think of it, the same could be said for the whole Silicon Valley, VC/angel, and tech blogosphere worlds.**

Hold that thought.

Speaking of socially-insensitive environments where there aren’t a lot of women involved, CV Harquail has a pair of intriguing posts on Authentic Organizations:

With women as the majority of Facebook users, a movie portraying their CEO as a sexist asshole, a track record of privacy invasions, you’d think that the entrepreneurial world would be all over this opportunity — especially with Dreamwidth as an example of an alternative path.  And who knows, maybe I just am out of the loop and there are in fact a bunch of startups who have gotten funding to go after it and for some reason none of them demoed at Disrupt.

Then again, maybe something’s keeping TechCrunch and the Silicon Valley, VC/angel, and tech blogosphere worlds from seeing the opportunity.

Their loss.


* Scott’s book The Difference goes into a lot more detail on the value of diversity and when and why crowds are wise.  Adam Shostack has a short review on Emergent Chaos

** and YCombinator, Quora, Microsoft and Diaspora too. But I digress.

image via Authentic Organizations

Earlier posts in the “TechCrunch, disrupted” series: Fretting, asking, and begging isn’t a plan,  Collusion is sooo hot right now,
The third wave meets the anatomy of awesome, Changing the ratio,
A public service announcement, and A celebration of disruptive women