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The Wisdom of Crowds

11th November 2010

From the middle of yesterday afternoon, Twitter’s top trending topic was Millbank. The evening news was engorged with images of breaking glass and an angry mob knocking off copper’s hats at Tory HQ. Aaron Porter, President of the NUS, described this as the actions of a ‘minority of idiots’ who changed the news headlines from ‘Fifty thousand students protest against educations cuts’ to ‘Inadequate police fail to protect property’. I don’t suppose for a moment that the cuts8-001violence achieved anything for anyone. The government might have welcomed the opportunity to talk about public order rather than the duplicity of the Labrador Democrats if it wasn’t for the fact that violence in the streets of London reminds everyone of the divisive death throes of the Thatcher government. With the broken glass and wet ash from the bonfire of banners being cleaned up, most news items this morning get around to mentioning that there were only 14 minor injuries and the ‘lunatic fringe’ consisted of around 200 masked anarchists focused on badness. It was wrong, but it wasn’t exactly Orgreave.

Of course, its pretty rare for protest of this type to pass off without some sort of violence and damage and as an Editorial in today’s Guardian points out, most people are perfectly capable of making a distinction between a well supported good cause and a small number of provocateurs. The social issue here is whether the students have provided a focus for public sentiment against the decimation of public spending or whether the 50,000 peaceful protestors represent a lunatic fringe of their own, leaving most citizens to get their heads down and deal with this and every other cut as best they can. Time will tell, but whatever the merit of their economic position on University fees, the coalition may well be in some political trouble if yesterday proves to be a real threat to the security of its yellow partners, as the NUS predict, and they can’t shake the lingering sense of class warfare that they’ve created.

I’m pleased that I’ve never experienced a riot in the workplace but I am reminded, just a little, of some work that I did a few years back over the implementation of a staff consultative body. At the Board meetings there was much hysteria about creating an angry mob of staff. The HR team were dragged through endless re-writes of a proposed policy over many months. Plans were produced and rejected one after the other as the Directors implicitly reacted in fear of a committee of workers being created, Petrograd Soviet-like, in advance of a February Revolution of employees. This was a generally well run business with a decent, if slightly old-fashioned, view of employee relations. With the advantage of stranger value, we were able to introduce a little common sense to the discussion. We pointed out the inevitability of compliance and the political danger arising from the Board appearing reluctant. We encouraged them to trust that the majority of staff was unlikely to be swayed by any lunatic fringe and secured agreement to a more transparent election method than the worryingly opaque proportional representation scheme that they were drifting towards. An election was held, a group elected and trained and they ended up discussing the quality of the tea and toilets, as these groups often do.

Crowds are wise. Press and government focus on yesterday’s violent minority don’t mask the issue. In organisations and society, extremists exist but the wise leader is the one that is able to see past the noise and fury of the few to understand and address the feelings of the many.