Thursday, April 12, 2012
Collective intelligence and continuous improvement
The story of the advance of society, including the advance of civilization, is a story of specialization and collaboration. It is one of the historically most important techniques of improvement devised by man (or nature, for that matter...think evolution to exploit niches).
On the flip side, for certain tasks, a group will perform better than any individual within the group. For example, say the task is estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar. An average of all the estimates of a group is typically closer to the actual value than the best estimate of any individual in the group. So, in this case, specialization may not be helpful.
The specialist will out-perform others when he has additional information or knowledge not available to the others in the group. A specialist, Frederick Taylor, studied work tasks to gather additional knowledge. His "science of shoveling" was a famous example. The application of his studies, called scientific management, resulted in big productivity improvements in industry.
But there is another kind of specialist, the person who has been doing the job for a long time. He has a lot of specialized information about the job. Getting workers to think about their jobs and how to improve them has been one of the biggest sources of improvements in manufacturing in the years after scientific management. And the notion extends to nearly all areas of endeavor, not just manufacturing.
The challenge is: How to encourage people to reflect on their work to make continuous improvements?
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