Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Social Groupthink

The groupthink is a well documented psychological phenomenon where a group of people, usually insulated from any counterbalancing point of view, ends up making gravely irrational decisions. During the phenomenon, the group is driven by the spirit of harmony, collaboration and the desire to reach consensus. The more the reasoning progresses, the more the group is mutually reinforcing its one-sided perspective while it completely discounts any alternate point of view. The results can be disastrous and many events in history have been attributed to the groupthink, including the US Navy negligence prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor or the US invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The John F. Kennedy cabinet during the Cuban Missile Crises - another "groupthink" at work
In the world of social media, groupthink is very common. On social media, we tend to follow people who share views that are consistent with our own views. Hockey fans follow other hockey fans, single mothers follow single mothers, wine connoisseurs follow wine connoisseurs, and democrats follow democrats. This natural selection is the result of a rational behavior - we engage with people with whom we share common interests.

On top of that, social media like Facebook employ filtering algorithms to reduce the torrent of updates we get exposed to. These filters are based on explicit personal preferences (i.e. interests stated in our profiles) as well as on the results of our interactions. If you like a post about kittens the algorithm will reason that you like kittens and chances are you will be seeing more posts about kittens. Over time, you end up ‘liking’ various comments, pictures, and pages. Based on your liking, Facebook starts presenting you more of the stuff you like from the people who’ve shared liked news before. That happens at the cost of all other news in your newsfeed. As a result, you get exposed only to views from friends who you “like" more and more and you won’t get exposed to anything else. This is a fertile breeding ground for a groupthink with all its shortcomings.

Now, consider social software in the enterprise. Its promise was to stimulate employee effectiveness and foster innovation by bringing together diverse groups of employees who bring in different expertise and who share different points of view. Yet, if we end up with conversations where only the employees thinking the same way talk to each other, the results of social software will be greatly reduced.  

There are, of course, many other great uses for social software in the enterprise i.e. collective decision making, process collaboration, or customer service. Yet with the need to drive the corporate innovation agenda on top of the priority list for many CEOs, the promise to use social software for ideation is very compelling.

To make that happen, we must avoid the social groupthink. We have to be very careful about the filtering algorithms we employ and we have to devise strategies that encourage employees to engage with others beyond their existing teams and functions. Tribal interactions are good, but engaging across a variety of employees is what stimulates corporate innovation.

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