Wisdom of Crowds and IBM

I’m working my way through James Suroewiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is excellent. I was struck by an observation about the difference between socialogical diversity and cognitive diversity in a discussion about the culture at NASA around the time of the shuttle Columbia disaster. From page 183:

What was missing most from the MMT, of course, was diversity, by which I mean not socialogical diversity but rather cognitive diversity. James Oberg, a former Mission Control operator and now NBC News correspondent, has made the counterintuitive point that the NASA teams that presided over the Apollo missions were actually more diverse than the MMT. This seems hard to believe, since every engineer at Mission Control in the late 1960s had the same crew cut and wore the same short-sleeved white shirt. But as Oberg points out, most of those men had worked outside of Nasa in many different industries before coming to the agency. NASA employees today are more likely to have come to the agency directly out of graduate school, which means they are also far less likely to have divergent options. This matters because, in small groups, diversity of opinion is the single best gurantee that the group will reap benefits from face-to-face discussion.

This paragraph immediately made me think of IBM. IBM has always been one of the leading corporations in valuing sociaological diversity, but the vast majority of its new hires are fresh collge graduates. In my (limited, since I was never a manager) experience, hiring a so called “experienced hire” was like getting blood from a stone, whereas there always seemed to me lots of money earmarked for college hires. In fact IBM seems to focus large amounts of energy on gobbling up as much of the latest graduating class as it can, particularly the top N computer science programs with internship programs like Extreme Blue.

I can’t knock the value of hiring under-represented groups like women and minorities into a company, but does that really give you a pool of diverse cognitive experiences if everyone went to the same schools? If a person is fresh out of a given school, I doubt their opinons on things will vary much because they’re male or female, black or white – given the same crowd a few more years to get some experience, see what works and doesn’t work; that’ll give you cognitive diversity.

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