More Conflict, Stronger Associations

By: Jennifer J. Salopek

How disagreement and difference lead to better decision making.

Thanks to the internet, association members and leaders are more likely to disagree with each other—and that's a good thing. Online, everybody creates, shares, and expands information and knowledge, and those conversations—especially the conflict-driven ones—are essential to an association's growth. That's a phenomenon David Weinberger discusses in his new book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

The book's key takeaway is that we have a well-developed and hugely efficient knowledge ecosystem that has generated itself since the advent of the internet. Now, rather than thinking about "knowing" as "getting an answer," we think about it as participating in a conversation.

"If you want your organization to be smart, think about how to engage a varied network of skills and answers," says Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He says the book stemmed from his work on a different project on the changing nature of business expertise. "I had been working on that outline for about a year when I realized that I wanted to take a step back and take a look at the nature of knowledge itself," he says.

Associations can play a major role in assembling and engaging the networks Weinberger describes, but to do so they must simultaneously revise their former image as knowledge gatekeepers. Until recently, Weinberger says, knowledge was defined by authorities such as academics, experts, and encyclopedias. Today, the most successful organizations will recognize that a variety of members require a variety of content from a variety of sources.

Weinberger cautions that it's a mistake to believe that a variety of content equals a diversity of ideas. We aren't as diverse online as we think we are, according to Weinberger. "We must have much in common with another person just to have a conversation," he says. "We must have the same language, topic, and interest in that topic. We need more agreement than we had thought."

Weinberger supports the notion of author Scott Page, who argues that diversity trumps talent, that a group is smarter than any one member, and that the best answer will come from a diverse group. But if we aren't as diverse as we think we are, how do we generate the best answers?

Weinberger's response is to promote the kind of disagreements that get people talking. Associations connect people through their interests, but he says their value—and their social obligation—is to steer them toward difference. To that end, he says, associations should actively seek out the information that gets people beyond traditional "stopping points"—the authoritative statements of experts, academics, and so forth—and make room for more conflict. "Organizations can connect people who are not alike by pulling difference into the network," Weinberger says.

One benefit of that kind of disagreement is that it might help eradicate what he calls one of associations' sacred cows: best practices. "Associations aggregate these all the time, but there is no such thing as a best practice—just an idea that's better in some situations than others," he says. "The world is tremendously varied in its details. The desire to codify sends the wrong message; there is no one right answer."

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer in McLean, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Jennifer J. Salopek