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Collective meaning and group decision making

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 5, 2005
Filed in Collaboration

I just had an interesting distinction drawn to my attention: the difference between collective meaning and group decision making. I’ve just finished Wisdom of Crowds which argues that under certain circumstances a group will make a better decision than any one individual. The author, James Surowiecki,  provides many examples including finding a submarine, guessing the weight of livestock, and Google’s ability to find relevant web pages. Wisdom of crowds are all examples of group decision making.

For Nancy Dixon the intended outcome of collective meaning making “… is a new way of understanding something that is shared across the collective.” Nancy goes on to illustrate her viewpoint with an anecdote about a North American Indian tribe of hunter-gatherers originally told by Bohm (of dialogue fame).

“From time to time the whole tribe would come together in a circle and talk. No one appeared to have called the meeting nor led it; the group made no decisions and seemingly had no agenda. Yet when the meeting ended people what to do because they know understood each other. The might then get together in small groups and make plans or decide to do something.” (pp. 58)

My work at Anecdote is primarily about collective meaning making. We use narratives collected from an organisation to help people have conversations that they wouldn’t normally have. That said, most companies are unwilling to spend time just talking, especially in the outcome focussed culture of Australia. Consequently, we follow meaning making with intervention design.

Dixon, Nancy. 1999. The Organizational Learning Cycle: How We Can Learn Collectively. 2nd ed: Gower Publishing Company.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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