Collective Wisdom: 'We Are Smarter Than Me' When Barry Libert and Jon Spector set out to explore how social networking might help businesses, they allowed just about anyone with an idea to help write the book. Thousands of people contributed to We Are Smarter Than Me, which is about the wisdom of crowds.
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Collective Wisdom: 'We Are Smarter Than Me'

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Collective Wisdom: 'We Are Smarter Than Me'

Collective Wisdom: 'We Are Smarter Than Me'

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This morning we're going to see what we can learn about business from a different kind of business book. It's called "We Are Smarter Than Me." And it's about the importance of listening to your employees. If you're thinking that doesn't sound like such a new idea keep listening for a moment because the book is not just about the wisdom of crowds; it's a book written by a crowd - an online community called a Wiki.

We decided not to call up all 5,000 participants, but we did ask a couple of the authors to talk with us. They are Barry Libert and Jon Spector. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BARRY LIBERT (Author): Good morning.

Mr. JON SPECTOR (Author): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did you model this book on something that's going to be very familiar to a lot of people, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia where just about anybody can show up, edit an article, and it's just hoped that other people will edit out any mistakes the first person makes or add more good information.

Mr. SPECTOR: Well, we modeled it in the sense that that was really the first successful community publication. But writing a book is a very different process than writing a series of now, I think, more than million articles. And we've actually stumbled throughout the process on the differences between Wikipedia and writing a book; how do you synthesize the ideas, how do you get a single common voice across?

And to be honest, not all the things we've done worked. In the actual text writing, we were trying to lay down guidelines for how people should write, and we laid down once set of guidelines and it didn't particularly lead to a good result and we changed it three and four and five times.

And finally we said, you know what, we have to have no guidelines. And we talked ourselves about relinquishing control, were we ready to do it? And eventually we said to ourselves, look, if we believe in this concept, we have to implement it. And we did. And that's really when the contributions from the community began to pick up.

INSKEEP: Would you have somebody write a chapter? For example, "How May We Help We"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIBERT: Sure. We started with that thesis hoping that people would write chapters. What we found was, people write sections of chapters or parts or thoughts, not unlike Wikipedia, and we had to make sense of all those piece parts and build those into chapters.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to move from the style of this book or the method of the book to the substance of the book. What are you trying to get across about the way that companies use their employees or fail to use their employees' knowledge?

Mr. LIBERT: Well, the first thing we want to make sure is that social networking was not just about social activities, with all the buzz about Facebook and MySpace. It was really about how might businesses should think about crowds, not just their employees as crowds, but also customers, partners, distributors, investors as crowds, and to use those crowds as a way to improve whatever activity they're working on, as opposed to just using organized activities, as they do it today.

INSKEEP: Okay. Give me an example of how a business might grab that opportunity with a crowd.

Mr. SPECTOR: This is a great example. A company called Goldcorp. It's a gold mining company. And over the years their geological information gave them the direction as to where to mine for gold. Eventually they essentially ran out of places to look for gold.

Normally they would have a group of experts inside the company, geological experts who would figure out where to go next, but they had exhausted that. They actually published their geological data, which are the secret crown jewels of any mining company. On the Web they got hundreds of proposals as to where to look for new gold. And they found $3 billion of new gold out there. It cost them about a half a million dollars, so there was an extraordinary payback.

INSKEEP: Proposals from whom?

Mr. SPECTOR: The crowd, people who were interested. I don't know that they knew exactly who these folks were, what their credentials were. I'm sure many of them were geologists, but they were not employees. There's just that knowledge out there, and that's the essential premise of the book. We, some of whom are unknown, are smarter than a small group of experts inside a company.

INSKEEP: John Spector and Barry Libert, thanks very much.

Mr. LIBERT: Our pleasure, thanks for having us today.

Mr. SPECTOR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: They're the lead collaborators in the online project that created the book "We Are Smarter Than Me." And you can read an excerpt and contribute to their next book, if you like, by visiting npr.org.

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