The wisdom of crowds
Brian Uzzi talks about what makes ‘the many’ more useful than ‘the few’

Collaboration, not the keyboard, tanked BlackBerry, Brian Uzzi says.

He should know. As faculty director of the Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative, Uzzi studies systems and how people connect.

Much of Uzzi’s research focuses on the “wisdom of crowds,” how groups coming together have capped oil spills, designed new products and cracked marketing riddles.

The crowd doesn’t do it for a paycheck, but for status: the authority of being a Wikipedia editor, the thrill of being on German television, the pride of creating cherry-lime vitaminwater.

“Financial remuneration is typically not the way collective wisdom systems work,” Uzzi says. “They work by giving people social recognition.”

Oil and water

To illustrate the upside of collective wisdom, Uzzi notes a recent product development campaign. In 2010, vitaminwater Connect hit the shelves, a product created not by expert designers and R&D chemists but by Facebook fans.

Paying $5,000 to the creator and $5,000 to the team that came up with the name, Coca-Cola got a new product for a fraction of what a product development team would cost.

Great minds are in short supply, Uzzi says, requiring the need for collective wisdom to power innovation. Kellogg’s work focuses on understanding and developing models for managing collective wisdom systems.

“Creativity and new ideas can arise just as well from the experiments and ideas of lots of average persons,” Uzzi says. “To make it work for you or your company, you need systems for organizing and garnering the ideas from the collective.”

In 2011, McDonald’s ran a similar contest in Germany, collecting more than 116,000 hamburger ideas. Five winners saw their burgers on the menu and themselves in TV ads.

"To make it work for you or your company, you need systems for organizing and garnering the ideas from the collective."
Brian Uzzi
Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and
Organizational Change

The campaign netted 327,000 potential German burgers the next year.

Crowdsourcing, a form of collective wisdom, can also tackle more serious issues, as BP engineers found while trying to cap the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

“There were hundreds of internal engineers trying to break that problem,” says Uzzi. “They started to receive possible solutions from engineers and a broad range of persons with diverse backgrounds from around the world.”

That information helped the BP engineers cap the undersea gusher.

Back to BlackBerry

Uzzi views the case of tech giant BlackBerry as a cautionary tale of proprietary models’ limits.

BlackBerry was the king of the smartphone in 2007 when Apple unveiled its new iPhone. Soon, people were switching by the thousands.

“A lot of the internal dialogue at BlackBerry was, ‘Do we move from our keyboard, which is physical, to a touch keyboard that the iPhone has?’” Uzzi says.

Although the touchscreen was the most visible difference, the twist that put iPhone on top was the open source operating system behind the screen.

“Apple made the code available to everyone, so anybody in the world could develop software that would run on the iPhone,” Uzzi says.

And they did, creating everything from Spotify to Angry Birds.

Because their operating system was proprietary, BlackBerry couldn’t benefit from the crowdsourcing of new apps and innovative ideas, Uzzi says. Those crowdsourced concepts, in total, were more robust than the creative efforts of BlackBerry’s own research and development group.

Says Uzzi: “If BlackBerry had tapped into the wisdom of crowds, they probably would have had an enduring product and been able to up the ante on the new competitors like Apple by creating a technology ecosystem that deepened the attachment of their base to their product and kept it continually innovative and fresh.”

Learn more about the Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative at: