Crowdsourcing strategy

At its annual meeting on September 9, the Book Industry Study Group announced plans to provide its members with an annotated summary of major, minor and desired initiatives, a list that currently exceeds 100 items. BISG plans to give every member “points” to allocate to desired or favorite initiatives, with the expectation that the collective will correctly and sustainably help BISG divine strategy.

However, the wisdom of crowds is best used to solve problems that are bounded. If the question or choice is narrow enough, individual members of the crowd can reasonably understand and embody the context in which decisions can be made.

Handing a crowd, even a crowd of members, an unbounded problem all but guarantees unbounded results. Good in theory, perhaps, but organizations do not live in a vacuum. They manage competitors, collaborators, resource constraints and a host of other concerns that a crowd will not take into consideration.

An example: while relatively few people care about standards, they are at the core of what BISG does to make sure the publishing value chain works for all of its participants. Maintaining and enhancing standards is hard, unglamorous work. If the crowd decides it wants to allocate the bulk of its points (and BISG’s resources) to “reinventing the book”, whither standards?

Moreover, my points are not the same as your points. I may be more engaged than you, or less; I may have put a stake in the ground that transformed a backwater effort into a strategic priority [I haven’t, at least not at BISG].

Large-scale crowd-sourcing efforts have demonstrated that 80% or more of the work is done by 10% or even 1% of those participating. Why should we all get the same vote? And what message does that send to the staff, core participants on the board and BISG’S several committees?

Projects that BISG elects to fund represent strategy brought to life within the organization. Strategy is derived from mission, values and vision, not from the collective wisdom of a crowd voting on a large and broad set of possible priorities. No one member or set of members can see the whole of an unbounded problem; asking them to do so diminishes the board’s and the staff’s responsibilities.

It would make more sense to first convene those most engaged in change efforts – chairs of committees, for example, and their members – to help BISG develop and promote its strategy. With agreement on what mattered, the same engaged group could sort and rank its many initiatives, then provide those sorted lists (as subsets of like projects, aligned by committee) to members.

This is not a project to rush through. Gaining agreement on mission, vision and strategy takes discussion and time, and voting is not an effective substitute.

Reasonable disclosure: We’re newer members of BISG (that’s how you get to attend the annual meeting), and we have done work in the past for one of their conferences. I have great respect for the work that the organization and its volunteers do. That’s why I think this idea needs to be reexamined.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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