Decentralized intelligence

As usual, I love the pointers over at Many-to-Many. In particular this week, Clay Shirky pointed to this great article over at Slate by Duncan Watts on the shortcomings of centralized intelligence. Duncan Watts runs the Small World Project, which seeks to test the “six degrees of separation” hypothesis. He’s written a book about it, which I’ve been meaning to read forever.

I really liked this article because it points up the ways in which people will self-organize to accomplish really difficult tasks if given the opportunity. Informal relationships are drawn upon, and the collective intelligence of the organization is put to work in a way that could not happen if the leadership demanded that all the decisions be made at the top of the company. In particular, he points out that centralized leadership works fine if it’s dealing with planned-for situations where the bureaucracy has been laid out and the processes have been put in place. But it deals very poorly with unexpected or catastrophically new situations, because it can’t take advantage of the information and social networks available in each of its individual workers’ heads. It’s the difference between the planned central economy of communism and the market orientation of capitalism. Given my recent post about management structures and my belief that the business world is moving towards a time of constant innovation and new situations, it’s unsurprising that I liked this article, so I figured I’d link to it.