James Surowiecki

Author, The Wisdom of Crowds

Wrote the book on how to systematically tap your organization’s collective intelligence.

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Biography

James Surowiecki is the foremost authority on how to harness the collective wisdom of your organization for competitive advantage.

His definitive book is called The Wisdom of Crowds: Why The Many Are Smarter Than The Few And How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies And Nations. In this book, Jim describes systematic ways to organize and aggregate the intelligence available in your organization in order to arrive at superior decisions — often better than those that individuals would make, even if they are ‘experts’.

The book and Jim’s presentations based on the book are full of insights into how groups operate that are invaluable to business leaders. He also offers practical methods, tailored to his audience, for leveraging people and technology to learn what you need to know and make decisions that really serve the organization’s goals.

Jim writes a twice-monthly financial column for The New Yorker that is typically pegged to current events and incorporates the kind of insights from economics, sociology, and business history that make The Wisdom of Crowds so valuable.

He has written for a broad range of other publications on a wide variety of topics. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal and other major publications. He wrote "The Bottom Line" column for New York magazine, and was a contributing editor at Fortune.

Finding the Scorpion
In 1968, the submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic. The vessel made a radio transmission and then just disappeared. After the navy had searched fruitlessly for months, a man named Craven assembled a diverse group of experts, from salvage, the Navy, mathematicians, and so on. He prepared a series of scenarios and had them bet on how likely the scenarios were. Using the group’s collective choice of scenario, he then ran a series of factors — speed, angle of descent, etc. — through a computer algorithm. This gave him a map of the Ocean floor with one spot that was most likely for the submarine. No one person had proposed this location and the Navy wasn’t looking there. But they found the Scorpion 220 yards from where the group said it would be. As a whole, the group knew all of the factors, but no individual had all the parts.

The Wisdom of Crowds
Under the right conditions groups can be remarkably intelligent and effective problem solvers — potentially smarter than the smartest person in the group or any so-called experts (think of how seldom individual portfolio managers outperform a market index). ‘Prediction markets’ can be set up to solve a wide range of other problems very successfully, as well. Collective wisdom also helps alleviate the problems caused by hierarchies, which are good at getting things done but terrible at getting information.

But what are the right conditions? The group needs

  • Diversity
    Having access to a lot of different perspectives, sources of information and sets of knowledge is more valuable than individual IQ or expertise;
  • Independence of opinion
    If individuals can deliver their decisions simultaneously and blind to everyone else’s choices, you get real knowledge and superior decisions untouched by groupthink, peer pressure and other group dynamics; and
  • A method of aggregating information
    Here is where technology and system design come in.

Jim Surowiecki knows the theory and he’s studied dozens of successful examples of how to systematically tap this collective intelligence. He can help your organization leverage your knowledge resources to your collective advantage.

In the spring of 2008, the Brooklyn Museum held a photo exhibition based on the ideas in The Wisdom of Crowds. Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition explored whether a diverse crowd can be just as 'wise' at evaluating art as trained experts.

Take-aways

  • Radically improved decision-making
  • Effective execution of decisions
  • Leadership skills that foster group decisions

Credentials

  • Columnist for The New Yorker
  • Author, The Wisdom of Crowds
  • 2009 Thinkers 50 Guru Radar choice
  • Former columnist, New York magazine
  • Former contributing editor, Fortune

Books

The Wisdom of Crowds

Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations

James Surowiecki

In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant — better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how knowledge is advanced, how economies are (or should be) organized and how we live our daily lives. With seemingly boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, economic behaviorism, artificial intelligence, military history and political theory to show just how this principle operates in the real world.

Despite the sophistication of his arguments, Surowiecki presents them in a wonderfully entertaining manner. The examples he uses are all down-to-earth, surprising, and fun to ponder. Why is the line in which you’re standing always the longest? Why is it that you can buy a screw anywhere in the world and it will fit a bolt bought ten-thousand miles away? Why is network television so awful? If you had to meet someone in Paris on a specific day but had no way of contacting them, when and where would you meet? Why are there traffic jams? What’s the best way to win money on a game show? Why, when you walk into a convenience store at 2:00 A.M. to buy a quart of orange juice, is it there waiting for you? What do Hollywood mafia movies have to teach us about why corporations exist?

The Wisdom of Crowds is a brilliant but accessible biography of an idea, one with important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, conduct our business, and think about our world.

Doubleday (May 25, 2004)

Review

Wisdom in numbersBusinessworld

Topics

Jim tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The Collaboration Landscape

Videos

The Wisdom of Crowds, Growth and Character

Surowiecki interviews Nassim Taleb

Feedback

A institution offering financial and technical assistance to developing countries:
James was FANTASTIC! He exceeded expectations and really was a perfect fit.

An internet company:
Jim was great. He spoke for an hour — finished right on time — without any notes. Very impressive. The talk was very well structured, was very easy to follow, and built to a very logical conclusion. He managed to bring in some points that were particularly relevant to our crowd, so that the talk did not feel obviously "management"-focused – this was very important. He sprinkled the talk with specific examples, which helped the audience follow along and stay engaged (very important in a long talk with no slides or other visual aids). He definitely kept in mind the description of the audience that I had given him.

I got some great comments from a few people and overall, from my personal perspective, I think it was ideal and just what we wanted. (It complemented the other invited speaker from the prior day, who was a bit more technical).

It really was a beautifully crafted talk and everything I heard about it was positive.

A large community foundation:
The event was fabulous, and Jim was fantastic. We've gotten so many nice comments. He was very energetic, very engaging. In fact he worked with us for an event the evening before the annual meeting engagement with some donors, and he was absolutely great, very conversational, really connected with our guests, and just the nicest guy, too. We were so pleased, so I just wanted to let you know that everything went great. He really exceeded our expectations. So again, thanks for sending us a wonderful, wonderful speaker, and we look forward to working with you again in the future.

A group of association leaders:
A 10. Absolute 10. Did I mention "10"? Gave 110%, went a little over, but not one person left. Did Q&A and we were astounded by the quality of the questions coming from the audience. Jim answered each one above and beyond what was expected. An absolute joy to work with. We were thrilled that Jim enjoyed being there.

An investment advisor firm:
He was fantastic! Really outstanding — engaging, articulate, great stage presence. We were extremely pleased! 10 out of 10!

A regional business partnership:
Wonderful! Wove his presentation around our needs. An absolute joy to work with. Went above and beyond the expectations that were sent. He took time signing books, interacted with the group. On a scale of 1-10 (10 highest), Jim was an 11. We'll be calling you next year!

A Fortune 50 Company:
Jim did a wonderful job — his interaction with the audience was right on, feedback was extraordinarily positive and he did a great job with preparing for the event.

A diversity forum:
Just wanted to drop you a quick note to thank you for joining us at our Fall 2005 Diversity Forum and, especially, for all your help in engaging James for this event. What can I say — James' presentation was a home run! Many participants shared how his presentation moved them to look at diversity through a new lens and several of our executives are already beginning to look at how they can engage and leverage the cognitive diversity in their teams.

In short — James is a class-act and his presentation was world-class, timely and relevant to our audience.

A major media corporation in the UK:
First class. We were delighted. Many thanks. Whatever he may say, James is better than a crowd!

Articles

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